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Snapshots: June 2018

Featuring beautiful weather, a lot of reading, and a trip to beautiful Hampton Court Palace.

Music: ‘I Must Belong Somewhere’ by Bright Eyes

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Project Twenty Update

We are only halfway through July, but I thought that I would write my first update post detailing how I am getting on with my Project Twenty challenge.  The idea behind it is to get my to-read pile down to between fifteen and twenty books, and keep it that way.

It will, I’m sure, surprise very few people who have followed such challenges of mine in the past to find out that it hasn’t quite gone to plan.  I have been keeping a list of how many books I own, both physical and those bought on my Kindle, at the outset of each month.  I have then recorded how many books have been added, splitting them again into physical and Kindle purchases.  The most important part of my challenge was to endeavour to read as many books from my own TBR as I could; I have therefore temporarily stopped borrowing books from the library, and am more selective about what I choose to read from Netgalley.

Let us begin with my progress – or lack thereof – in May.  I read 14 physical books and 4 on my Kindle.  18 in total does not sound too bad, but one must factor in that I purchased 17 physical books throughout the month.  My total TBR at the end of May consisted of 36 physical books, and 7 Kindle books, 43 in total.

During June, my TBR went from 43 total books to 78.  I celebrated my birthday during the month, and as mentioned in my original TBR Goals post, received the entire box set of all fifty of the new Penguin Moderns series.  I also purchased 8 books, 4 in physical copies, and 4 on my Kindle.  I read 19 books and 4 Kindle books during the month, but those 23 did not make much of a dent in my TBR pile.

I have been making more of a concerted effort during July not to buy much; saying that, it is only the halfway point of the month, and I have already added 2 physical books, 2 Kindle books, and 2 review copies to my collection…  Thus far, I have read 23 physical books, and no Kindle tomes.

Going forward, I think I’m going to focus less upon how many books I’m reading and adding to my TBR pile.  I will still strive to get to the fifteen to twenty book mark eventually, but I still want to have a nice varied collection to pick from.  Added to this is the fact that some of my to-read books are currently with me in Scotland, and others are at my parents’ house back in England; thus, it is rather difficult to get down to my chosen number.

I’m sure that when I do, finally, shrink my TBR, I will post about it, perhaps with some advice on how to shrink your own to-read pile.  For now, however, I will try and steer away from bookshops and online book sales, and just savour the reading material which I have.

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‘Birdcage Walk’ by Helen Dunmore **

Helen Dunmore’s final novel, Birdcage Walk, is a piece of historical fiction set in 1792, in Bristol.  At this time, ‘Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence’.  The Observer calls Birdcage Walk ‘the finest novel Dunmore has written’.  The Daily Telegraph deem it ‘Quietly brilliant…  among the best fiction of our time.’  The Guardian believe it to be ‘a blend of beauty and horror evoked with such breathtaking poetry that it haunts me still’.  The novel was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize, and has been rather highly praised by critics, as the above quotes demonstrate. 9780099592761

Lizzie Fawkes, the protagonist of the novel, is the product of a childhood lived in Radical circles, ‘where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism’.  Lizzie has recently married a property developer named John Diner Tredevant, who is ‘heavily invested’ in their city’s housing boom, and has ‘everything to lose from social upheaval and the prospect of war’.  He is displeased with Lizzie’s ‘independent, questioning spirit’, and is of the conviction that she should live and behave only in the manner he wishes her to.  In 1793, war was declared between Britain and France, which led to the collapse of the housing boom in Bristol, causing many builders and developers to go bankrupt; this, of course, affects Lizzie and John.

The novel opens in present day Bristol, where a dogwalker comes across an overgrown grave: ‘If my friends hadn’t decided that I should have a dog I would never have opened the gate and gone into the graveyard.  I always took the paved path between the railings.  Birdcage Walk, it’s called, because of the pleached lime trees arching overhead on their cast iron frame.’  The grave which his dog, Jack, first discovers ‘leaned only slightly backwards’.  The name inscribed upon it is Julia Elizabeth Fawkes, an eighteenth-century writer.  The narrator is able to find no information about her whatsoever online, and goes to an open day at her known residence in order to ask an archivist what they are able to find out.

The novel proper begins with rather a chilling chapter.  It begins: ‘He must have shut his eyes.  When he opened them, there she was.  She lay as he had left her, under a tree in the brambles and ivy.  He had laid her out straight, and crossed her hands, and then he had wrapped his coat about her head.  He had known that she would stiffen in a few hours, and that he would not want to see her once again.  There she was.  No one had come; he’d known that no one would come.  It was his luck.  There were no marks where he had dragged her, because he had lifted her in his arms and carries her.’  This man, unknown to us at first, then digs a grave and buries her, before scurrying away.  The second chapter of the novel, and the majority of those which follow, are narrated by Lizzie, whose mother is a writer.

The descriptions in Birdcage Walk are sometimes inventive, and have a vivacity to them.  For instance, Dunmore writes: ‘But the moon was inside too.  It had got into the bedroom while we were sleeping.  Its light walked about over the bedstead, over the chest, the basin in its stand and the blue-and-white jug.  It was a restless thing and I could not lie still.’  I found the first couple of chapters, and the differentiation between tone, character, and period intriguing, but I soon found myself losing interest in the story once Lizzie’s account began.  Her voice felt too settled, and I could not invest enough empathy in her plight.  The dialogue felt forced, unnatural, and repetitive, and the prose and plot were too slow, and plodded along.  Julia Fawkes was a real person, but I felt as though Dunmore had no hold upon her character.  Whilst Dunmore often excels in her novels with her descriptions of the natural world, and in setting scenes, I did not quite feel as though this was the case here.

Birdcage Walk deals with ‘legacy and recognition – what writers, especially women writers, can expect to leave behind them’.  This has an added poignancy, given Dunmore’s untimely death last year.  Unfortunately, whilst I have very much enjoyed several of Dunmore’s novels in the past, Birdcage Walk neither lived up to its premise, nor to its praise, for me.  I am all for slow novels, but I like my historical fiction to be highly absorbing, and well anchored in the period.  Unfortunately, Birdcage Walk was neither.

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One From the Archive: ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet ****

“Two men have been enlisted to kill the head of the Gestapo. This is Operation Anthropoid, Prague, 1942: two Czechoslovakian parachutists sent on a daring mission by London to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich – chief of the Nazi secret services, ‘the hangman of Prague’, ‘the blond beast’, ‘the most dangerous man in the Third Reich’. His boss is Heinrich Himmler but everyone in the SS says ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’, which in German spells “HHhH”.

9780099555643“All the characters in HHhH are real. All the events depicted are true. But alongside the nerve-shredding preparations for the attack runs another story: when you are a novelist writing about real people, how do you resist the temptation to make things up? HHhH is a panorama of the Third Reich told through the life of one outstandingly brutal man, a story of unbearable heroism and loyalty, revenge and betrayal. It is improbably entertaining and electrifyingly modern, a moving and shattering work of fiction.”

I was so very impressed by Laurence Binet’s HHhH. I found the entire novel incredibly engrossing, and I loved the mixture of fact and fiction which Binet had used. The different narrative structures which he made use of worked wonderfully, both singularly and together. The translation has been rendered with such care and precision that it never feels awkward, as many pieces of translated fiction can so easily. Binet’s writing suits the story he has crafted, and his take on the tale is really quite chilling at times. He portrays the horrors of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime very well indeed. His descriptions of Prague, one of my favourite cities, are exquisite.

I have never before read a book without page numbers, but I am glad that this was the first. Odd as it may sound, the structure of the book just does not make them necessary. HHhH is a book to be drawn into and to forget the world around you as you continue to read. It is more interesting in such cases, I feel, to be so engrossed that you no longer wonder how many pages you have left to go until you reach the end. HHhH is marvellously paced, particularly towards the end, and is a must read for any self-confessed history nerds out there.

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The Book Trail: Wartime Memoirs

I am beginning this instalment of the Book Trail with a memoir I stumbled across, and have added right to the top of my TBR list.  As ever, I have used the tool on Goodreads entitled ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ to create this list.

1. Castles Burning: A Child’s Life in War by Magda Denes 514939
There are few figures in literature as riveting as the precocious nine-year-old Magda Denes who narrates this story. Her stubborn self-command and irrepressible awareness of the absurd make her in her mother’s eyes “impossibly sarcastic, bigmouthed, insolent, and far too smart” for her own good. When her family goes into hiding from the fascist Arrow-Cross, she is torn from the “castle” of intimacies shared with her adored and adoring older brother and plunged into a world of incomprehensible deprivation, separation, and loss. Her rage, and her ability to feel devastating sorrow and still to insist on life, will reach every reader at the core. Recounting an odyssey through the wreckage and homelessness of postwar Europe, Castles Burning embodies a powerful personality, a stunning gift for prose and storytelling, a remarkable sense of humor, and true emotional wisdom and makes a magnificent contribution to the literature of childhood and war.

 

2. Last Waltz in Vienna by George Clare
On February 26, 1938, 17-year-old Georg Klaar took his girlfriend Lisl to his first ball at the Konzerthaus. His family was proudly Austrian; they were also Jewish, and two weeks later came the German Anschluss. This incredibly affecting account of Nazi brutality towards the Jews includes a previously unpublished post-war letter from the author’s uncle to a friend who had escaped to Scotland. This moving epistle passes on the news of those who had survived and the many who had been arrested, deported, murdered, or left to die in concentration camps, and those who had been orphaned or lost their partners or children. It forms a devastating epilogue to what has been hailed as a classic of holocaust literature.

 

10430123. I Remember Nothing More: The Warsaw Children’s Hospital and the Jewish Resistance by Adina Blady-Szwajger
The author was a young Jewish doctor at the children’s hospital in the Warsaw Ghetto from 1940 to 1942. When the hospital was forced to close the children that had survived were taken to the death-camps. Blady-Szwajger became a reluctant courier for the resistance. She left the ghetto and began to carry paper money pinned into her clothing to those in hiding. She and her flat-mate pretended to be good-time girls having fun and threw parties to disguise the coming and going of their male visitors. This heroic memoir pays tribute to all the men and women who paid with their lives for the safety of others.

 

4. Edith’s Story by Edith Velmans
When Hitler invaded Holland in 1939, Edith van Hessen was a popular Dutch high school student. She also happened to be Jewish. In the same month that Anne Frank’s family went into hiding, Edith was sent to live with a courageous Protestant family, took a new name, and survived by posing as a gentile. Ultimately one-third of the hidden Dutch Jews were discovered and murdered; most of Edith’s family perished.   Velmans’s memoir is based on her teenage diaries, wartime letters, and reflections as an adult survivor. In recounting wartime events and the details of her feelings as the war runs its course, Edith’s Story ultimately affirms life, love, and extraordinary courage.

 

5. The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope, and Survival in Theresienstadt by 2211263Hannelore Brenner
From 1942 to 1944, twelve thousand children passed through the Theresienstadt internment camp, near Prague, on their way to Auschwitz. Only a few hundred of them survived the war. In The Girls of Room 28, ten of these children—mothers and grandmothers today in their seventies—tell us how they did it.  The Jews deported to Theresienstadt from countries all over Europe were aware of the fate that awaited them, and they decided that it was the young people who had the best chance to survive. Keeping these adolescents alive, keeping them whole in body, mind, and spirit, became the priority. They were housed separately, in dormitory-like barracks, where they had a greater chance of staying healthy and better access to food, and where counselors (young men and women who had been teachers and youth workers) created a disciplined environment despite the surrounding horrors. The counselors also made available to the young people the talents of an amazing array of world-class artists, musicians, and playwrights–European Jews who were also on their way to Auschwitz. Under their instruction, the children produced art, poetry, and music, and they performed in theatrical productions, most notably Brundibar, the legendary “children’s opera” that celebrates the triumph of good over evil.  In the mid-1990s, German journalist Hannelore Brenner met ten of these child survivors—women in their late-seventies today, who reunite every year at a resort in the Czech Republic. Weaving her interviews with the women together with excerpts from diaries that were kept secretly during the war and samples of the art, music, and poetry created at Theresienstadt, Brenner gives us an unprecedented picture of daily life there, and of the extraordinary strength, sacrifice, and indomitable will that combined—in the girls and in their caretakers—to make survival possible.

 

6. Playing for Time by Fania Fenelon
In 1943, Fania Fenelon was a Paris cabaret singer, a secret member of the Resistance, and a Jew. Captured by the Nazis, she was sent to Auschwitz where she became one of the legendary orchestra girls who used music to survive the Holocaust. This is her personal account of the experience.

 

12520997. The Story of a Life by Aharon Appelfeld
In spare, haunting, almost hallucinogenic prose, the internationally acclaimed, award-winning novelist shares with us–for the first time–the story of his own extraordinary survival and rebirth.  Aharon Appelfeld’s childhood ended when he was seven years old. The Nazis occupied Czernowitz in 1941, penned the Jews into a ghetto, and, a few months later, sent whoever had not been shot or starved to death on a forced march across the Ukraine to a labor camp. As men, women, and children fall away around them, Aharon and his father (his mother was killed in the early days of the occupation) miraculously survive, and Aharon, even more miraculously, escapes from the camp shortly after he arrives there.  The next few years of Aharon’s life are both harrowing and heartrending: he hides, alone, in the Ukrainian forests from peasants who are only too happy to turn Jewish children over to the Nazis; he has the presence of mind to pass himself off as an orphaned gentile when he emerges from the forest to seek work; and, at war’s end, he joins the stream of refugees as they cross Europe on their way to displaced persons’ camps that have been set up for the survivors. He observes the full range of personalities in the camps–exploitation exists side by side with compassion–until he manages to get on a ship bound for Palestine. Once there, Aharon attempts to build a new life while struggling to retain the barely remembered fragments of his old life (everyone urges him simply to forget what he had experienced), and he takes his first, tentative steps as a writer. As he begins to receive national attention, Aharon realizes his life’s calling: to bear witness to the unfathomable. In this unforgettable work of memory, Aharon Appelfeld offers personal glimpses into the experiences that resonate throughout his fiction.

 

8. Shanghai Diary by Ursula Bacon
By the late 1930s, Europe sat on the brink of a world war. As the holocaust approached, many Jewish families in Germany fled to one of the only open ports available to them: Shanghai. Once called “the armpit of the world,” Shanghai ultimately served as the last resort for tens of thousands of Jews desperate to escape Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Against this backdrop, 11-year-old Ursula Bacon and her family made the difficult 8,000-mile voyage to Shanghai, with its promise of safety. But instead of a storybook China, they found overcrowded streets teeming with peddlers, beggars, opium dens, and prostitutes. Amid these abysmal conditions, Ursula learned of her own resourcefulness and found within herself the fierce determination to survive.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which interest you?

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