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‘The Girl Who Smiled Beads’ by Clemantine Wamariya ****

In 1994, Clemantine Wamariya, then aged six, and her fifteen-year-old sister Claire, fled the Rwandan genocide from their home in the country’s capital, Kigali.  They spent the following six years in seven different African countries, ‘searching for safety – perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindnesses, witnessing inhuman cruelty.’  The sisters had no idea, during this period, whether their parents were alive, or what the fate of their other siblings had been.  Wamariya’s experiences are recorded in The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After.

9781786331472The Girl Who Smiled Beads has been described as ‘urgent, and bracingly original.’  Wamariya’s memoir, states its blurb, ‘captures the true costs of war…  But it is about more than the brutality of war.  It is about owning your experiences, about the life we create: intricately detailed, painful, beautiful, a work in progress.’

I was personally very young during the Rwandan genocide, and learnt nothing about it until long afterwards.  This is the first memoir which I have picked up about the horrifying conflict and its many victims.  When the conflict begins, Wamariya explains that she was in much the same boat; she noticed that things were changing around her, but nobody thought to even attempt to explain why this was the case.  She says, two years before she fled, ‘In my four-year-old imperiousness, I believed I could handle the truth.  I thought I deserved to know.  I demanded it.’  She is left to work things out by herself: ‘Houses were robbed, simply to prove that they could be robbed.  The robbers left notes demanding oil, or sugar, or a TV.  I asked adults to explain, but their faces had turned to concrete, and they nudged me back into childish concerns.’  To Wamariya, the conflict – at first, at least – is therefore comprised of a series of things which are suddenly forbidden, or taken away from her; for instance, her days at kindergarten, her best friend, electricity, and no more dinner guests.

The girls are taken in the dead of night from Kigali to stay with their grandmother, who lived near the Burundi border; they settle in, but soon have to move from here, too.  The sisters run into a nearby banana grove, which other people are already using for shelter, ‘most of the young, some of them bloody with wounds…  The cuts looked too large, too difficult to accomplish, gaping mouths on midnight skin.’  Her experiences of suddenly being homeless, and her change in status, are still difficult for Wamariya to articulate.  She writes: ‘It’s strange, how you go from being a person who is away from home to a person with no home at all.  The place that is supposed to want you has pushed you out.  No other place takes you in.  You are unwanted, by everyone.  You are a refugee.’

The sisters were granted refugee status in the USA when the author was twelve years old, and they settled in Chicago, Illinois.  Even when they move, and feel relatively safe, ‘the war’ is something which is very rarely mentioned between the sisters.  The memoir opens at an interesting point, when the family is reunited on Oprah’s talk show, after Wamariya enters an essay competition.  After this, the entire family, complete with young siblings that neither Clemantine nor Claire had ever met, assemble at Claire’s apartment.  Wamariya writes of the awkwardness and heartbreak of this situation: ‘I sat on Claire’s couch, looking at my strange new siblings, the ones who’d replaced me and Claire.  They looked so perfect, their skin unblemished, their eyes alight, like an excellent fictional representation of a family that could have been mine.  But they didn’t know me and I didn’t know them and the gap between us was a billion miles wide.’

Of her experiences, and the difficulties which she has in recalling everything which she went through, Wamariya writes: ‘… my own life story feels fragmented, like beads unstrung.  Each time I scoop up my memories, the assortment is slightly different.’  Looking back upon her experiences, she says: ‘I did not understand the point of the word genocide then.  I resent and revile it now.  The word is tidy and efficient.  It holds no true emotion.  It is impersonal when it needs to be intimate; cool and sterile when it needs to be gruesome.  The word is hollow, true but disingenuous, a performance, the worst kind of lie.’

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a powerful memoir, filled with poignant scenes and musings.  Wamariya never glosses over any of her experiences; nor does she overdramatise them.  From the outset, she exercises her wise voice, and imparts her deepest and most private thoughts.  ‘I think back to this after,’ she writes, ‘in trying to make sense of the world – how there are people who have so much and people who have so little, and how I fit in with them both.  Often I find myself trying to bridge the two worlds, to show people, either the people with so much or the people with so little, that everything is yours and everything is not yours.’

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‘One Writer’s Beginnings’ by Eudora Welty ****

I very much enjoy Eudora Welty’s fiction, but know comparatively little about her childhood.  I read the wonderful What There Is To Say We Have Said a couple of years ago, which features much of the correspondence between Welty and another favourite author of mine, William Maxwell.  This autobiographical work, which is composed of a wealth of memories largely from Welty’s Mississippi childhood, works as a wonderful companion volume.

Of One Writer’s Beginnings, William Maxwell writes, ‘It is all wonderful…  The parts of the book that are about her family… are by turns hilarious and affecting.  They are a kind of present… from Miss Welty to her audience.’  Penelope Lively believes it to be a piece of ‘entrancing reading’, and Paul Binding writes in the New Statesman: ‘A writer for whom “genius” is for once a not inappropriate word…  A book of great sensitivity – as controlled and yet aspiring as a lyric poem.’

9780674639270In One Writer’s Beginnings, which was first published in 1984, Welty decided to tell her story in one ‘continuous thread of revelation’.  The book provides, says its blurb, ‘… an exploration of memory by one of America’s finest writers, whose many honours include the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award for Fiction, and the Gold Medal for the novel.’  This book consists of three essays – ‘Listening’, ‘Learning to See’, and ‘Finding a Voice’ – which have been transcribed from a set of three lectures which Welty gave at Harvard University in April 1983.

When ‘Listening’ begins, Welty’s words set the scene immediately: ‘In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.’  Throughout, Welty’s voice is lyrical, candid, and often quite moving.  She reveals her deep love of books, which was present even when she was a tiny child.  ‘I learned,’ she writes, ‘from the age of two or three that any room in our house, at any time of day, was there to read in, or be read to.’  Welty’s writing is particularly beautiful when she discusses her love of stories: ‘It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass.  Yet regardless of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them – with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself.  Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them.’

In a series of vignettes, Welty talks about stargazing, singing, childhood illness, learning the alphabet, religion, schooling, and the quirks of her in some ways unconventional parents, amongst other things.  The imagery which she conjures up is often lovely; for instance: ‘All children in those small-town, unhurried days had a vast inner life going on in the movies.  Whole families attended together in the evenings, at least once a week, and children were allowed to go without chaperone in the long summer afternoons – schoolmates with their best friends, pairs of little girls trotting on foot the short distance through the park to town under their Japanese parasols.’  When she discusses the travels which she went on with her family each summer, she writes of their positive effect upon her later writing: ‘I think now, in looking back on these summer trips – this one and a number later, made in the car and on the train – that another element in them must have been influencing my mind.  The trips were wholes unto themselves.  They were stories.  Not only in form, but their taking on direction, movement, development, change.  They changed something in my life: each trip made its particular revelation, though I could not have found words for it.  But with the passage of time, I could look back on them and see them bringing me news, discoveries, premonitions, promises – I still can; they still do.’

One Writer’s Beginnings spans Welty’s childhood, and includes comparatively brief reflections about her time at college, and the early days of her writing career.  She is insightful about the creation of her characters, and the knowledge which one must have as an author to create enough depth.  ‘Characters take on a life sometimes by luck,’ writes Welty, ‘but I suspect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.’

One Writer’s Beginnings is a beautifully written celebration of stories, of Welty’s own, and of those which filled her girlhood.  I was pulled in immediately, transported to the Deep South in the early twentieth century.  This is a joyous account, filled with depth and insight.  Welty’s voice is utterly charming, and sometimes quite profound.  I shall close this review with one of the most wonderful quotes from the book: ‘The memory is a living thing – it too is in transit.  But during the moment, all that is remembered joins and lives – the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.’

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‘Bad Blood’ by Lorna Sage ****

Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood has, like many of the books I review, been on my to-read list for years.  I so enjoyed her non-fiction book, Moments of Truth: Twelve Twentieth Century Women Writers, and was eager to read more of her work.  Rather than a collection of critical essays, Bad Blood is a memoir of Sage’s early life in rural Wales during the 1940s and 1950s, and ends with her University graduation.  It was published in 2000, and won the Whitbread Prize for Biography just a week before Sage passed away.

9781841150437Sage’s childhood was ‘dominated’ by her ‘brilliant, bitter grandfather – a drinking, womanising vicar, exiled to a parish’ just over the Welsh border with England.  After the war, when Sage left the ‘gothic eccentricity’ of the vicarage, she moved into a nearby council house with her parents and younger brother, Clive.  Here, she ‘soon discovered that real family life was marked by myths, secrets and disappointments of its own.’

‘A dazzlingly vivid account of one girl’s coming-of-age in post-war provincial Britain,’ writes its blurb, ‘Bad Blood is now universally reclaimed as one of the most extraordinary memoirs of the decade.’  Hilary Mantel praises it ‘both for its generosity of spirit and its intensity as an act of self-recovery’, and Claire Tomalin calls the novel a ‘classic account of childhood’, and Sage herself a ‘writer of rare intelligence’.  Margaret Drabble writes that Bad Blood is a ‘vividly remembered, honest, generous, shocking story…  A fine transformation of pain into something redeeming – I don’t think that’s too grand a word.  A very moving testament.’

Bad Blood has been split into three parts, which cover distinct periods in Sage’s life – the first her early life at the vicarage in Hanmer, the second her transition to grammar school and living with her parents, and the third her surprise pregnancy at aged sixteen, and her determination to receive a University degree.  These sections are peppered with photographs.  Of Hanmer, Sage writes: ‘So Hanmer in the 1940s in many ways resembled Hanmer in the 1920s, or even the late 1800s except that it was more depressed, less populous and more out of step – more and more isolated in time as the years had gone by.’

Sage had such a gift for capturing vivid scenes and unusual characters.  The memoir opens with the following description: ‘Grandfather’s skirts would flap in the wind along the churchyard path and I would hang on.  He often found things to do in the vestry, excuses for getting out of the vicarage (kicking the swollen door, cursing) and so long as he took me he couldn’t get up to much…  He was good at funerals, being gaunt and lined, marked with mortality.  He had a scar down his hollow cheek too, which Grandma had done with the carving knife one of the many times when he came back pissed and incapable.’  Due to the sheer amount of time which Sage spent with her grandparents, who tolerated each other at best, she had very few memories of being with her parents when she was little.  Of her soldier father, away at war, she recalls only that she was picked up by him and was ‘sick down his back’.

Bad Blood presents a multi-generational family portrait; Sage scrapes away at the veneers of her family, and reveals what it has been hidden far beneath the surface.  She writes with such sincerity about her somewhat dysfunctional upbringing, spent more with books than people, and describes the changing post-war landscape with such detail.  Throughout, Sage’s narrative voice is lilting and friendly, and she speaks about such varied things, from fashion, farming, and food, to schooling, swimming, and sharing.  I enjoyed the second and third sections of the memoir the most; in these, Sage played a more active role in proceedings, rather than merely telling the reader about her grandparents and parents in rather an omniscient manner.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Path Through the Trees’ by Christopher Milne ***

First published in 2014.

The Path Through the Trees, the second volume of Christopher Milne’s autobiography, was first published in 1979, and has been recently reissued by Bello.  It starts where The Enchanted Places ‘left off’, but, the author says, this book ‘is a complement [to it].  It is about the non-Pooh part of my life.  It is an escape from Christopher Robin’. 9781447269854

In The Path Through The Trees, Milne presents what he thinks of as ‘a disjointed story – but a happy life’.  He describes the second part of his autobiography as follows: ‘So I live at the bottom of a valley.  I have a small bookshop in a small town; and I seldom venture far afield’.  In the book, his story begins at ‘the point in time when the choice stopped being theirs [his parents’] and became mine’.  It opens with the declaration of the Second World War, when he has finished at his public school and is about to go and study at Trinity College, Cambridge.

A few of the themes which were so prevalent in The Enchanted Places weave their way into The Path Through the Trees, most notably the importance of nature and Milne’s love for his natural surroundings.  The Path Through the Trees is written just as eloquently as the former, but the entirety feels far more grown up.  Milne talks about smoking for the first (and last) time, forays into politics, his joining up with the Army, discovering himself as a person, his marriage, and becoming a father.  Records from his personal diary have been copied verbatim.

Whilst the charm of the first book has not made its way into the second, The Path Through the Trees is still a most interesting read, particularly when Milne reaches his acquisition of the Harbour Bookshop in the small town of Dartmouth.  It is at this point that the book really comes into its own.

One cannot help but feel, however, that the same kind of leap between volumes of autobiography is present here as exists between Roald Dahl’s Boy and Going Solo.  The spellbinding note has been lost somewhere along the way, and sadly, a lot of it tends to read just like any other memoir.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Enchanted Places’ by Christopher Milne ****

First published in 2014.

Christopher Milne’s The Enchanted Places is one of the newest books on Bello’s thoughtful list of reprints. He was the son of A.A. Milne, and the inspiration for the darling character Christopher Robin – ‘the small boy with the long hair, smock and wellington boots’ – who shares his adventures with a cast of lively and captivating animals, including Pooh and Piglet. 9781509821891

The Enchanted Places has been written from the vantage point of the author’s mid-50s, and tells of his childhood in the ‘enchanted places’ in Sussex in which he used to play – the Hundred Acre Wood, Poohsticks Bridge and Galleon’s Lap, among others.  As well as talking of his own adventures as a young boy, Milne ‘draws a memorable portrait of his father… [in] a story told with humour and modesty’.

The Enchanted Places, first published in 1974, is the first book in Milne’s three volume autobiographical series, and deals solely with his life as a young boy.  His memoirs begin ‘somewhere around the year 1932’ in his Crotchford Farm home, a place which he and his family adored. Milne describes the reason for which he decided to write about his life as follows: ‘To some extent, then, this book is an attempt to salve my conscience; and it may perhaps be some slight consolation to all those who have written and waited in vain for a reply that this, in a sense therefore, is their reply’.

Throughout, The Enchanted Places is absolutely charming, and full of vivacity.  Milne’s descriptions are beautiful, and it is clear that he was forever full of love for both nature and life.  Rural England springs vividly to life beneath his pen.  Each chapter presents a mini essay of sorts on one subject or another, and whilst Milne’s prose style echoes his father’s, there is also something wonderfully original about it.

A.A. Milne with Christopher and Pooh Bear

Milne is a rather humble man, and comes across so nicely on the page.  He takes the reader on a journey back in time with him to encompass his nursery days, his forays into the Hundred Acre Wood, tours of his home, the discovery of his very first treehouse, and the adoration he held for his childhood nanny.  He goes on to talk of the problems which he encountered due to his immortalisation in fiction, and demonstrates how his father’s fame impacted upon him from such an early age.

The Enchanted Places is a quaint and an incredibly lovely read, and is sure to be a welcome addition to any bookshelf.  The natural settings and shyness of Milne as a young boy have been captured perfectly, and the book presents a rich treasure trove of memories, certain to enchant everyone for whom Winnie the Pooh was a part of childhood.

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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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The Book Trail: From Penelope Lively to Elie Wiesel

I am beginning this Book Trail post with a memoir which I read as part of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, and which I very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

1. Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived by Penelope Lively 9780141188324
This autobiography is about growing up in Egypt. It is also an investigation into childhood perception in which the author uses herself and her memories as an insight into how children see and know. It is a look at Eygpt up to, and including, World War II from a small girl’s point of view, which is also, ultimately, a moving and rather sad picture of an isolated and lonely little girl.

 

2. The Italics are Mine by Nina Berberova
This is the autobiography of Nina Berberova, who was born in St Petersburg in 1901, the only child of an Armenian father and a North Russian mother. After the Revolution, and the persecution of intellectuals which followed, she was forced to flee to Paris, where she was to remain for 25 years. There she formed part of a group of literary Russian emigres that included Gorky, Bunin, Svetaeva, Nabokov and Akhmatova, and earned a precarious living as a journalist, barely surviving the hardship and poverty of exile. In 1950 she left France for the United States to begin a new life with no money and no knowledge of English. She is now a retired Professor of Russian Literature at Princeton, and has belatedly been acclaimed for the short novels she wrote in the 1930s and ’40s.

 

251472953. Zoo or Letters Not About Love by Victor Shklovsky
While living in exile in Berlin, the formidable literary critic Viktor Shklovsky fell in love with Elsa Triolet. He fell into the habit of sending Elsa several letters a day, a situation she accepted under one condition: he was forbidden to write about love. Zoo, or Letters Not about Love is an epistolary novel born of this constraint, and although the brilliant and playful letters contained here cover everything from observations about contemporary German and Russian life to theories of art and literature, nonetheless every one of them is indirectly dedicated to the one topic they are all required to avoid: their author’s own unrequited love.

 

4. The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman
In a prose form as startling as its content, “The Shutter of Snow” portrays the post-partum psychosis of Marthe Gail, who after giving birth to her son, is committed to an insane asylum. Believing herself to be God, she maneuvers through an institutional world that is both sad and terrifying, echoing the worlds of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Snake Pit.”  Based upon the author’s own experience after the birth of her son in 1924, “The Shutter of Snow” retains all the energy it had when first published in 1930.

 

5. Vain Art of the Fugue by Dumitru Tepeneag 759968
Clutching a bouquet of flowers, hurrying to catch his bus, and arguing with the driver once he’s on, a man rushes to a train station platform to meet a woman. This sequence of events occurs and recurs in remarkably different variations in Vain Art of the Fugue.  In one version, the bus driver ignores the traffic signals and is killed in the ensuing crash. In another, the protagonist is thrown off the bus, and as he chases after it, a crowd of strangers joins him in the pursuit.  As the book unfolds, the protagonist, his lovers, and the people he meets become increasingly vivid and complex figures in the crowded Bucharest cityscape. Themes, conflicts, and characters interweave and overlap, creating a book that is at once chaotic and perfectly composed.

 

6. Blindsight by Maurice Gee
Alice Ferry lives in Wellington, and keeps an eye on her brother, though he doesn’t know it. Alice as narrator begins telling us the story from their childhood, but there are things she’s hiding.  When a young man shows up on her doorstep, claiming to be her brother Gordon’s grandson, things get complicated.

 

48109717. Little Fingers by Filip Florian
In a little town in Romania, a mass grave is discovered near the excavations of a Roman fort. Are the dead the victims of a medieval plague or, perhaps, of a Communist firing squad? And why are finger bones disappearing from the pit each night? Petrus, a young archaeologist, decides to do some investigating of his own.   Meanwhile, an Orthodox monk in the surrounding mountains stumbles into history when he becomes the father confessor of a partisan bent on bringing down the government, one handmade grenade and one derailed train at a time. Not to mention a team of Argentinean forensic anthropologists who arrive in town in a cloud of rock music, shredded jeans, and tequila.   Florian has packed real history, a religious pilgrimage, a criminal investigation, a recipe for roast pigeon, and a love story into two hundred truly remarkable pages.

 

8. The Time of the Uprooted by Elie Wiesel
Gamaliel Friedman is only a child when his family flees Czechoslovakia in 1939 for the relative safety of Hungary. For him, it will be the beginning of a life of rootlessness, disguise, and longing. Five years later, in desperation, Gamaliel’s parents entrust him to a young Christian cabaret singer named Ilonka. With his Jewish identity hidden, he survives the war, but in 1956, to escape the stranglehold of communism, he leaves Budapest after painfully parting with Ilonka.  He settles in Vienna, then Paris, and finally, after a failed marriage, in New York, where he works as a ghostwriter, living through the lives of others. Eventually, he falls in with a group of exiles: a Spanish Civil War veteran, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, a victim of Stalinism, a former Israeli intelligence agent, and a rabbi—a mystic whose belief in the potential for grace in everyday life powerfully counters Gamaliel’s feelings of loss and dispossession. When Gamaliel is asked to help draw out an elderly, disfigured Hungarian woman who is barely able to communicate but who may be his beloved Ilonka, he begins to understand that a real life in the present is possible only if he will reconcile with his past.

 

Which of these books have you read?  Have any been added to your list?

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