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‘The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by Her Daughter’ by Elisabeth Gille ****

Elisabeth Gille’s imagined memoir of her mother, Russian-Ukrainian novelist Irene Nemirovsky, has been translated from its original French by Marina Harss.  Of Gille’s curious mixture of fact and fiction, The Nation comments that she is ‘not interested in defending her mother’s reputation.  Instead, she sets out to live in her mother’s head.’

71pytdpctqlGille was only five years old when her mother was arrested by the Gestapo for being Jewish.  Nemirovsky had spent over half of her life in France after moving around Europe a lot with her parents, trying to escape the fallout from the Russian revolution.  Gille, understandably, ‘grew up remembering next to nothing’ about her mother, who was ‘a figure, a name, Irene Nemirovsky, a once popular novelist, a Russian emigre from an immensely rich family, a Jew who didn’t consider herself one and who even contributed to collaborationist periodicals, and a woman who died in Auschwitz because she was a Jew.  To her daughter she was a tragic enigma and a stranger.’  Both of Gille’s parents were killed in Auschwitz; she and her sister Denise only survived because they were taken into hiding.

In her acknowledgment at the start of the book, Gille writes that her work ‘was imagined on the basis of other books’ – namely those which her mother wrote.  She goes on to say that all of the letters and citations which have been included throughout The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by Her Daughter are authentic, and have been taken from unpublished notes. Gille has attempted, throughout, to capture her mother’s own writing style, and consequently the entire book is written from the imagined perspective of Nemirovsky.  The volume, published in English by NYRB, also includes an interview with Gille, and an afterword written by Rene de Ceccatty.

The Mirador has been split into two sections – November 1929 and June 1942.  The first part takes place in Kiev and St Petersburg.  Here, during Nemirovsky’s childhood, there were ‘pogroms and riots, parties and excursions, then revolution’.  At this point, Gille writes: ‘For me, if Finland is winter and St. Petersburg, with its yellow mists shrouding the shores of the Neva is autumn, then Kiev is summer.  We were not yet rich when we lived there, just well-to-do.’  The family eventually settled in Paris, the place where Nemirovsky felt most content.  In these imaginings, particularly of Nemirovsky’s early life, her own mother appears to be a floating figure, flitting around to give orders, and giving much of her attention to clothes and ‘the season’, rather than to Irene.

The imagined memories of Nemirovsky are interspersed with brief snapshots of the author’s life when she was small.  In May 1920, for example, she ‘pulls at her mother’s sleeve; her mother is standing in the middle of the courtyard, reading.  The young woman shifts the book, pushes back her glasses, and smiles.  Her tender, myopic gaze caresses the child distractedly.  The child wrinkles her brow, releases the sleeve, and moves away.’

Gille’s echoing of her mother’s prose style has been lovingly handled, and feels relatively authentic throughout.  I had to keep reminding myself that I was essentially reading a work of fiction.  Like her mother’s, Gille’s writing is poetic and layered, filled with gorgeous and striking imagery.  Every sentence is in some way evocative, and her sentences are beautifully crafted.  A real sense of place and time have been deftly assembled.  When on a cruise down the River Dnieper, undertaken when Nemirovsky was quite young, for instance, Gille composes the following: ‘In the immensity of the Russian sky, the moon looked green, touched by the dying rays of the setting sun and crisscrossed by spectral clouds that slid over its white surface, leaving behind a trail of dark shadows.  The silver domes of the church of Saint Andrew, which we had just passed, still glimmered faintly among the trees.  The immense branches of the forest, which descended to the very edge of the river, draped the shoreline in darkness, but the middle of the current was dappled with metallic-coloured spots as far as the eye could see.’  The historical and social contexts have been well set out too, and unfolds alongside Nemirovsky’s own life.

The Mirador was not quite what I was expecting, and it is certainly unlike the majority of memoirs and biographies which I have read to date.  It was unusual, and I enjoyed the way in which Gille has approached her work.  There are some problems with the narrative, however.  It tends to jump around in place and time with no warning, and can be a little jarring in consequence.  The Mirador does, however, really come together.  It is both mesmerising and memorable, and I very much admire what Gille set out to do here.  The Mirador is vivid and sometimes quite surprising, and highlights a highly tumultuous period of history, and its effects upon one rather remarkable woman.

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‘The Stranger in the Woods’ by Michael Finkel ****

I was so intrigued by Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods, which tells the ‘extraordinary story of the last true hermit’.  This non-fiction book has been praised highly.  Sebastian Junger calls it ‘breathtaking’, and The Wall Street Journal nicely sums the book up, saying that it is a ‘meditation on solitude, wildness and survival’.  Published in 2017, The Stranger in the Woods is Finkel’s second book.

9781471152115The book focuses upon Christopher Knight, who, in 1986, and at the age of twenty, decided to leave his home in Maine.  He drove into the woods, and then disappeared.  Consequently, ‘he would not speak to another living soul for three decades.  Until, that is, he became hunted.’  Knight stayed in a single camp in the woods, not far from his home, surviving ‘by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to scavenge food and survive the harshest of winters.  In the process, he unsettled a community – myths abounded among the locals eager to find this legendary hermit.’

The Stranger in the Woods opens with Finkel setting the scene.  He writes: ‘The trees are mostly skinny where the hermit lives, but they’re tangled over giant boulders with deadfall everywhere like pick-up sticks.  There are no trails.  Navigation, for nearly everyone, is a thrashing, branch-snapping ordeal, and at dark the place seems impenetrable.’  For Knight, however, who only leaves his camp at midnight, his home is easy to get around: ‘He threads through the forest with precision and grace, twisting, striding, hardly a twig broken.  On the ground there are still mounds of snow, sun-cupped and dirty, and slicks of mud – springtime, central Maine – but he avoids all of it.  He bounds from rock to root to rock without a footprint left behind.’  Knight is, from the first, fearful of being discovered by those who live in the nearby town, and likes to leave not a trace of himself behind.

Following Knight’s disappearance, he becomes aware of only what is important to his new existence.  ‘He is,’ writes Finkel, ‘unaware of the year, even the decade, and does not know the proper names of places.  He’s stripped the world to his essentials, and proper names are not essential.  He knows the season, intimately, its every gradation…  He knows the moon, a sliver less than half tonight, waning.  Typically, he’d await the new moon – darker is better – but his hunger had become critical.’  Knight becomes as self-reliant as he can, and as his situation necessitates, but he can get the things he needs only by stealing them from local residents.  However, his string of thefts come with a set of moral values: ‘… if it looks valuable, the hermit will not steal it.’

Knight, who soon becomes both fascinating to, and feared by, the people targeted by his thefts, is not what anyone expected him to be.  When he is caught in the act of stealing food from a local summer camp, in April 2013, Finkel describes the way in which: ‘There’s no dirt on him anywhere, and little more than a shading of stubble on his chin.  He has no noticeable body odor.  His thinning hair, mostly covered by his wool cap, is neatly cropped.  His skin is strangely pale, with several scabs on his wrists.  He’s a little over six feet tall and broad-shouldered, maybe one hundred and eighty pounds.’  When asked about his life by local police, Knight responded that he spent the entire winter in a nylon tent, ‘and did not once in all those winters light a fire.  Smoke might give his campsite away.  Each autumn, he says, he stockpiled food at his camp, then didn’t leave for five or six months, until the snow had melted enough for him to walk through the forest without leaving prints.’  He also says that he spent no money whatsoever during his time in the woods.

During his time as a hermit, Knight became sensationalised, almost a mythical creature, and any mention of him used to terrify local children.  Finkel notes that ‘Because of the types of articles that were stolen, one family called him the Mountain Man, but that frightened their children, so they changed it to the Hungry Man.  Most people, including the police, began referring to the intruder simply as the hermit, or the North Pond hermit, or, more formally, the hermit of North Pond.  Some police reports mentioned “the legend of the hermit,” and on others, where a suspect’s full name was requested, he was recorded as Hermit Hermit.’  The local community, almost from the first, became wary and fearful: ‘He seemed to haunt the forest.  Families returned from a quiet trip into town wondering if they were going to encounter a burglar.  They feared he was waiting in the woods, watching…  Every walk to the woodpile provoked a goose-bumpy feeling that someone was lurking behind a tree.  All the normal night sounds became the noise of an intruder.’

Interestingly, Knight was never reported as a missing person, and had no contact with his family from the point of his disappearance.  Upon his discovery, he was completely unaware of what he looked like, had learnt to shave without using a mirror, and had only spoken one word – ‘Hi’ – in twenty-seven years, when he met a hiker in the woods.  He had no physical contact with anyone during his period in hiding.  Following his arrest, Knight became known all over the world, and many were fascinated by his story.  Five different songs were written about him, a local deli created a sandwich known as “the Hermit”, someone offered him land to live on rent-free, and a woman even proposed marriage.  The fact that he refused to speak about himself, or his time in the woods, in public, only intensified the longing of others to know about him.

The Stranger in the Woods is well paced, and is made up of a series of short chapters.  Finkel’s narrative style is easy to read; he has a quite informative and almost poetic prose style, which still manages to be chatty and informal.  He writes throughout of his experience in first writing to, and then meeting, Knight in prison, and detailing his story down.  He comes across as a sympathetic biographer, someone who largely leaves judgement out of his account.  The Stranger in the Woods is a fascinating book, which has made me consider further loneliness and isolation, and how impossible it must be to live alone in such a way as Knight did without disturbing the peace.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte’ by Daphne du Maurier ****

When my copy of Daphne du Maurier’s The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte arrived, I was pleased to note that it had originally been purchased from the Howarth Bronte shop and still bore a sticker proclaiming this in its bottom right hand corner. Of the du Mauriers which I had planned to read during my du Maurier December project, The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte was one of those which I was most intrigued by. Before beginning to read, I knew a little about Branwell Bronte, but only in the context of his sisters.  I was therefore so interested to learn what he was like as an entirely separate being.

In her introduction, du Maurier sets out her reasons for producing a biography of a figure who was largely overshadowed by the fame of his three surviving sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne: ‘One day the definitive biography of this tragic young man will be published.  Meanwhile, many years of interest in the subject, and much reading, have prompted the present writer to attempt a study of his life and work which may serve as an introduction to both’. 9781844080755

Branwell and his sisters spring to life immediately.  Their sad beginning – their mother dying when Branwell was tiny, and the consequent deaths of the eldest two Bronte sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, in 1825 – caused the four remaining siblings to mould themselves into an impenetrable group.  From the very beginning, du Maurier states that Charlotte, Emily and Anne were all greatly inspired
by their brother, particularly during their early childhood: ‘None of these novels [Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall] would have come into being had not their creators lived, during childhood, in this fantasy world, which was largely inspired and directed by their only brother, Patrick Branwell Bronte’.  She goes on to say that in their childhood, the four children wrote tiny books together in ‘a blend of Yorkshire, Greek and Latin which could only be spoken among the four of them, to the mystification of their elders’.  Branwell certainly comes across as an inventive child: ‘Imitative as a monkey, the boy was speaking in brogue on a Monday, broad Yorkshire on a Tuesday and back to the west country on the Wednesday’, and it is clear that du Maurier holds compassion for him.

Du Maurier discusses Branwell’s work throughout, often relating his creative output to the things which he was experiencing in life: ‘Although, on examination, Branwell’s manuscripts show that he did not possess the amazing talent of his famous sisters, they prove him to have had a boyhood and youth of almost incredibly productivity, so spending himself in the process of describing the lives and loves of his imaginary characters that invention was exhausted by the time he was twenty-one’.  His poetry particularly is often vivid:

“Backward I look upon my life,
And see one waste of storm and strife,
One wrack of sorrows, hopes and pain,
Vanishing to arise again!
That life has moved through evening, where
Continual shadows veiled my sphere;
From youth’s horizon upward rolled
To life’s meridian, dark and cold.”

The secondary materials included – a large bibliography, notes, sources, and a list of Branwell’s manuscripts – are extensive, and it is clear that du Maurier did an awful lot of research on and around her subject before putting pen to paper.  The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte includes quotes from Branwell’s letters, as well as his own prose.  Secondary documents of Charlotte’s have been taken into account, particularly when discussing Branwell’s illness and death.  Instances of literary criticism from a handful of different sources are also present.  Du Maurier marvellously weaves in the social history of the period – the death of kings and queens, for example.

Branwell’s painting of Charlotte, Emily and Anne

Whilst he is not always likeable, Branwell is an incredibly interesting subject for a biography, particularly for an author such as du Maurier to tackle.  She has demonstrated the many sides of his character, some of which were reserved particularly for certain people.  Du Maurier does continually talk of Charlotte, Emily and Anne, particularly during their childhoods, but one expects that it would be hard to write such a biography without taking them into account so often.  She does continually assert the place of Branwell in the Bronte family, however, and admirably, he is always her main focus.

Of the portrait of the Bronte sisters shown, du Maurier writes: ‘Close inspection of the group has lately shown that what was thought to be a pillar is, in reality, the painted-out head and shoulders of the artist himself.  The broad high forehead, the hair puffed at the sides, the line of coat and collar, all are there.  Perhaps Branwell did not consider that he had done his own face justice, and in a fit of irritation smudged himself into oblivion’.

The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte was first published in 1960, and remains an accessible and fresh portrait of a shadowy – and often overshadowed – character.  Du Maurier’s non-fiction is eloquent, and is written so beautifully.  She uses lush descriptions throughout, so much so that it occasionally feels as though you are actually reading a novel.  The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is quite slim in terms of biography; it runs to just 231 pages in the Penguin edition. The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte does follow a largely chronological structure.  Interestingly, however, the book’s initial chapter deals with his death, and then loops back to his childhood.  Through du Maurier, one really gets an understanding of Branwell’s personality, as well as learning of his hopes and fears.

The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is extremely well set out, and is easy to read.  The chapters are all rather short, and consequently it can be dipped in and out of, or read alongside other books.  Again, du Maurier’s wrork is thorough and well plotted, and provides an insightful and rewarding look into a relatively neglected part of the Bronte quartet.

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‘Irena’s Children’ by Tilar J. Mazzeo ****

Irena’s Children, a biographical account of Irena Sendler, a woman who saved thousands of children’s lives in Warsaw during the Second World War, has been written by New York Times bestselling author Tilar J. Mazzeo.  I have been fascinated by Sendler since I first learnt about her quite a few years ago, but at the time, I found it very difficult to find any books which focused upon her.  I was thrilled, therefore, when I spotted Irena’s Children quite by chance when browsing in the library, and began it almost as soon as I returned home. 9781471152610

Known as ‘the female Schindler’, Sendler, along with a vast network of resistance members, saved over 2,500 children from the Nazis in occupied Poland.  At the outbreak of war, Sendler, a Catholic, had just received a Master’s degree in social work, and had found employment as a social worker.  She was therefore allowed access to the Warsaw Ghetto, an area which all of the Jewish citizens of the city were forced to move into.  The Ghetto, overcrowded and suffering from a lack of food and sanitation, was the cruellest of places.  Mazzeo describes it as follows: ‘An area of seventy-three streets in the city – just over four percent of the streets in Warsaw – had been reserved for the Jews, carved out from what had long been one of the poorest and most run-down neighborhoods in the city centre.’  At its height, the Ghetto held over 250,000 people, many of whom were sent to different concentration camps.

Throughout the pogrom, and until the liquidation of the Ghetto in May 1943, Sendler had to ask many parents to trust her with their children.  She then set out ‘smuggling them out of the walled district, convincing friends and neighbours to hide them.  With their help and the help of local tradesmen and her lover in the Jewish Resistance, Irena made dangerous trips through the city’s sewers, hid children in coffins, snuck them out under overcoats at checkpoints and slipped them through secret passageways in abandoned buildings.’  Sendler kept extensive lists of the children’s real names, hoping that by doing so, they could be reunited with their families after the war’s end.  Of course, this only happened in relatively few cases, as many of the children’s families were murdered in concentration camps, or in the Ghetto itself.  She wrote each child’s name, along with the names of their parents and their addresses, in code on ‘flimsy scraps’ of cigarette paper, which she hid as best she could.

The leaders of the Resistance recognised how valuable Sendler was, and set up a cell under her direction.  She was more than willing to use her own initiative, and work closely with others, in order to save so many Jewish children: ‘Irena had wanted an adventure and, knowing that they were fighting against their oppressor, even if it was dangerous, made her feel alive.’

Sendler evaded detection for such a long time due to her appearance, and even when she was captured by the Nazis and taken in to be tortured, they were completely oblivious to the fact that they had one of the key members of the Resistance network in their clutches.  They thought that, because she looked like a feeble woman, she must just be a minor player, and could lead them to the main orchestrators of the movement.  Sendler is described as a ‘feather of a person with an iron spirit: a four-foot-eleven-inch wisp of a young woman, in her late twenties when the war began, who fought with the ferocity and intelligence of an experienced general and organized, across the city of Warsaw and across the divides of religion, dozens of average people into foot soldiers.’

In her prologue, which opens with a moment in 1943 in which the Gestapo come for Sendler, Mazzeo is honest and fair: ‘To make her a saint in the telling of her story is, in the end, to do a kind of dishonor to the true complexity and difficulty of her very human choices.’  She goes on to say, in the book’s preface, that ‘Irena’s love life was anarchic and unruly, and she struggled with the knowledge that she was not a good wife or a good daughter.  She placed her frail and ailing mother in grave danger and kept the knowledge of those risks from her.  She was reckless and sometimes myopic… and, at moments, she was perhaps even selfish in her selflessness.’  Mazzeo pieced together Irena’s Children by using primary materials, as well as Sendler’s own recollections, and interviews with some of those whom she helped.

Sendler’s childhood, and her reasoning for wanting to help others, is documented fully, and is also well-situated historically.  Whilst there is a lot of information woven through Irena’s Children, and such a high level of scholarship to boot, the book is markedly easy to read.  Irena’s Children brings to the fore the story of an important, and incredibly courageous, woman, who risked her own life multiple times every day in order to help others to survive.  This biography, fascinating and harrowing in equal measure, should be read by everyone.

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‘Jacob’s Room is Full of Books’ by Susan Hill ***

I was so excited to read Susan Hill’s second reading diary, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books, particularly as I so enjoyed her first, Howards End is On the Landing.  Released in 2017, Hill has set out to chart ‘a year of her life through the books she has read, re-read or returned to the shelf’.  I was expecting a similarly warming tone to the first instalment, as well as the excuse to fill up my to-read list with dozens more titles.

‘When we spend so much of our time immersed in books, who’s to say where reading ends and living begins?’ asks the book’s blurb.  In Jacob’s Room is Full of Books, Hill shows how ‘the two are impossibly and gloriously wedded.’  Her reading diary promises to be ‘full of wry observations and warm humour, as well as strong opinions freely aired…  a rare and wonderful insight into the rich world of reading from one of Britain’s most distinguished authors.’  The structure of Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is made up of small sections, all of which are arranged chronologically and slotted into monthly chapters, aiming to give one an insight into an entire year of reading.9781781250815

Hill opens by discussing audiobooks and ebooks, and what she believes to be the strengths and pitfalls of both.  She then touches briefly on what she thinks makes a bestseller, a theme which she comes back to again and again as the book goes on.  More themes along these lines, which tend to become a little repetitive, are Hill’s telling us about her own writing career, and giving advice to aspiring writers.

My main qualm with Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is that there is a lot of non-reading-related content throughout.  As opposed to Howards End is on the Landing, which is wonderfully bookish from beginning to end, there were quite a few points in the book when I wished Hill would stop mentioning her famous friends – often for little reason – and dig a little deeper into literature.  She is concerned throughout with those whom she knows from the upper echelons of society, and various members of the royal family make cameos in sections which have nothing to do with reading.  She does include quotes from other authors, or from books, but these rarely feel integrated well; rather, it takes one a little while to recalibrate and realise what Hill is doing.  She is, as the blurb says, opinionated in this book, far more so than in the first.

Regardless, there are some nice, and relatable, paragraphs about book collecting, and various tomes which she has returned to over the years.  A section which I particularly enjoyed takes place in February, when Hill feels the compulsion to reorganise her bookshelves.  She writes: ‘Not the weather for standing around more than two minutes admiring the spring flowers, the weather for clearing out bookshelves.  If we ever leave this house, we will not want to start doing it as the removal men are at the door.  I thought I had cleared out all the books I would ever need to lose five years ago, but books breed.  They beget second copies because you have mislaid the first and buy another, the day before you find the first.’  Another piece of writing which came across as warm and nostalgic involved Hill’s reminiscences about the joy of Ladybird books, after finding a box of forgotten titles from their catalogue in her attic.  Particularly given this, her lack of sentimentality in keeping books surprised me; I imagine it is quite rare with regard to other avid readers and people who call themselves collectors of books to have no connection with very few physical objects they’ve read, and have the ability to get rid of them with no problems.

The book, overall, has a disjointed feeling to it, particularly with regard to the first few months of the year.  In February, for instance, Hill begins her musings by talking about her greengrocer and how cheap it is to buy vegetables, and then she goes on to ask herself why she didn’t like fairytales as a child.  The next sections detail, in order, Hill’s spotting of some herons whilst out on a walk, a wish for snow, and a website featuring many lists of five books, all of which have been recommended by different people.  There are no connecting bridges to link the content; rather, it feels more like random day-to-day scribblings which have been taken straight out of a journal without much thought to how they fit together.  Stylistically, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is easy to dip in and out of in this manner, but when reading it all in one go, it does feel a little awkward.

I did enjoy Hill’s forays into nature writing, and felt that these worked well.  However, I cannot help but think the book may have been stronger had it been marketed in less of a misleading way as A Year of Reading, and more as a year in the life exercise.  Perhaps half, or maybe 60%, of the book is actually related to reading.  Some months do include more of Hill’s thoughts about reading and writing, but there are far less recommendations here than in the first volume.  The tone feels quite different too, and this is nowhere near as much of a cosy read as the first.

The balance in Jacob’s Room is Full of Books does not feel quite right, and some of the sections are so brief that they feel awkward to read.  I had hoped that it would be a continuation of Howards End is on the Landing, but it does not fill that criteria in its execution.  I found this volume disappointing on the whole; not what I thought, or hoped, it would be.  However, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is still a quiet, meditative read, particularly with regard to the nature she captures, and the slower sections about literature.

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‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ by Christopher Fowler **

The Guardian promises that Christopher Fowler’s The Book of Forgotten Authors is ‘a bibliophile’s treat’, and Stylist calls it ‘the perfect guide to finding your next reading obsession’.  I spotted the paperback edition, which has been expanded and updated, in the library, and could not resist adding it to the small pile of tomes already in my arms.  The book appealed to me, as I love anything which brings my attention to authors whom I have not before considered, or have never even heard of.

9781786484901The Book of Forgotten Authors includes ’99 forgotten authors, their forgotten books, and their unforgettable stories.’  It has been split into separate sections, each of which encompasses around ten different authors, with a common theme in mind.  These categories include ‘The Forgotten Queens of Suspense’, ‘The Forgotten Booker Authors’, and ‘Forgotten for Writing Too Little – and Too Much’.  The connections which Fowler makes between each author are loose and tentative, and these categories often overlapped, most of them focusing almost entirely upon mystery authors.

Whilst running my eyes over the contents page, I noticed a lot of authors whose names I did recognise, just a few I had never heard of, and quite a few which I have read.  Many of the authors whom Fowler includes in this tome do not deserve, in my opinion, to be called ‘forgotten authors’; he writes about Margery Allingham, Virginia Andrews, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Edmund Crispin, E.M. Delafield, Barbara Comyns, Barbara Pym, and Georgette Heyer, amongst others.

Of course, the very nature of this book makes it highly subjective.  In his justification for each inclusion, Fowler writes that he asked many people, in the form of an open question, ‘which once popular authors would [you] recommend for discovery?’  The response which he received, with its ‘deluge of suggestions’, was as follows: ‘It seemed that everyone had a personal favourite.  Authors I’d long considered to be household names had been wiped from the collective memory, and were ripe for a renaissance.  Some were mainstream novels from the recent past that caused sensations in their time.  The task of tracking them down became obsessive.’  The process of selecting authors for inclusion here consisted of two distinct factors – whether the author’s books ‘proved difficult to obtain’, and then asking a focus group of around twenty book-lovers whether they had heard of the author in question.  Fowler ended up with a master list of around four hundred authors which could have been included.  To lessen the number of entries, he chose to leave out ‘nearly all playwrights, poets, screenwriters and graphic novelists, and dumped personal indulgences.’  This, to me, seems like a limiting approach, and I feel as though far more variety would have been included in the book had the odd playwright or screenwriter been focused upon.

I did not enjoy Fowler’s personal prose style, and found the book was something I was having to force myself to read, rather than picking it up out of enjoyment.  His narrative did nothing whatsoever to engage me, and I found that a lot of the portraits of the authors were repetitive.  I did not add anywhere near as many authors or books to my to-read list as I was expecting, and have only found a handful of ‘forgotten authors’ whom I want to check out.  If you are interested in reading this, I would recommend dipping in and out of it over a longer stretch of time, rather than reading it all in one go, as I did.

The Book of Forgotten Authors sounded highly promising, but there is so little depth to it.  Each entry is only around three pages long, and there are sometimes no suggestions for which book a new reader of a particular author would be best to begin with.  There is hardly any detail in the biographies which are presented of each author, and I found that they barely whet my appetite, as Fowler had intended them to.  The brevity in Fowler’s approach did not work at all well in my opinion.  The Book of Forgotten Authors presented the author with such an opportunity, but it felt both lacking and lacklustre throughout.  There are far better books than this one which set out to do similar things.

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‘A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of the Columbine Tragedy’ by Sue Klebold ****

On April the 20th 1999, Dylan Klebold and his friend, Eric Harris, killed thirteen people – twelve students and one teacher – at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, before taking their own lives.  A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of the Columbine Tragedy was written by Dylan’s mother, Sue, in order to try and deal with her son’s actions.

9780753556801Of course, A Mother’s Reckoning is harrowing in its content, from its informative and thoughtful introduction by Andrew Solomon to its closing pages.  In her preface to the paperback edition, Klebold tells us: ‘I began writing about the experience of Columbine almost from the moment it happened, because writing about my son’s cruel behavior and his suicide was one of the ways I coped with the tragedy.  I never made a conscious decision to write.  I kept writing just as I kept breathing.’  At first, Klebold’s writing was merely personal; she was writing for herself, and did not wish to put her family, or other members of the community, through the ‘shattering experience’ of Columbine once more if it were published.

After a while, however, her view changed.  She writes: ‘In the end, I was able to take that step [of publishing A Mother’s Reckoning] because the messages I hoped to convey were a matter of life and death.  I felt a responsibility to educate parents and families about what happened, and why.  I believed that hearing what Dylan had gone through might be beneficial to others, especially those who are struggling with lethal thoughts, or who find themselves or their loved ones trapped in a cycle of hopelessness.’  Klebold now uses her platform to try and educate others about violence, suicide, and mental health, at both a local and national level, and works tirelessly for suicide prevention in the United States.

A Mother’s Reckoning uses excerpts from Klebold’s diaries, as well as reflective passages.  She has interviewed a wealth of experts from many fields, from law enforcement to psychology, and has woven in their thoughts and arguments too.  Klebold’s prose is easy to read, but her story is not.  This is particularly true when she recounts, in very matter-of-fact and almost emotionless prose, the details of the shooting.

The memoir begins with the phonecall which Klebold receives from her frenzied husband, Tom on the day of the shooting.  At first, unclear about the situation, she naturally thinks that her son may have been hurt in the shooting; it is only much later that she realises he played an active role in the attack.  As she hurries home from work following Tom’s call, she recalls: ‘They say your life flashes before you when you die, but on that car ride home, it was my son’s life flashing before me, like a movie reel – each precious frame both breaking my heart and filling me with desperate hope.’

From the outset, Klebold’s voice feels searingly honest.  Just after the shooting, when their secluded home is filled with police and SWAT teams searching for explosives, she writes: ‘It will perhaps seem callous that my focus was so squarely on Dylan – on the question of his safety, and later on the fact of his death. But my obligation is to offer the truth to the degree to which my memory will allow, even when that truth reflects badly on me.  And the truth is that my thoughts were with my son.’

Klebold describes, in quite painful detail, the process of accepting that her son both killed others, and then killed himself.  She was hurt when her son and Eric Harris were left out of Columbine memorials, but entirely understands the reasoning for such a decision.  She speaks throughout of the trauma which she and her family encountered, shunned by many members of the larger community, who believed that Dylan’s upbringing was to blame.  She tells us of her disbelief at Dylan’s involvement, which lasted for years afterwards: ‘A mechanism to preserve our sanity kicks in and lets in only what we can bear, a little at a time.  It is a defense mechanism, breathtaking in its power both to shield and to distort.’

Throughout, she shows such compassion to the victims, and takes a month to write to each of their families individually, to express her sorrow.  Another motivation for Klebold in writing this memoir was as follows: ‘… I hope to honor the memories of the people my son killed.  The best way I know to do that is to be truthful, to the best of my ability.  And so, this is the truth: my tears for the victims did eventually come, and they still do.  But they did not come that day.’  She speaks of writing as her therapy, whether this was addressed to the families of the victims, or in the pages of her own journal: ‘After Columbine, the relief I got from writing felt almost physical, if temporary.  My diaries became the place for me to corral the myriad, often contradictory feelings I had about my son and what he had done.  In the earliest days, writing allowed me to process my tremendous grief for the sorrow and suffering Dylan had caused.  Before I could reach out personally to the families of the victims, the journals were a place for me to apologize to them with all my heart, and to grieve privately for the losses they had sustained.’

Klebold talks of the fierce anti-gun stance which she and her husband had, not allowing their sons to own guns like a lot of their peers.  In fact, they were considering moving away from Colorado, as the gun laws had become too relaxed before Columbine occurred.  She wonders, although not at length, whether this would have prevented the tragedy from occurring, but later notes that Eric Harris had approached two friends to commit the atrocity with him before planning with Dylan.

A Mother’s Reckoning must have been incredibly difficult to write, but in its approach and musings, Klebold has set the right tone.  Of course, her memoir is biased in that she loved Dylan, but the memories of the son which she had often feel in conflict with what was reported about him.  The final section of the book discusses at lengths the issues with media reportage of such tragedies; Klebold believes that giving out the details of the shooter, or shooters, inspires copycat behaviour, sensationalising as it does what went on.  She also discusses, in this section, markers for depression and suicidal thoughts in children and young adults, and the signs which both she and her husband had just put down to the difficulties of hormonal and bodily changes.

Klebold says: ‘This Pandora’s box will never empty; I will spend the rest of my life reconciling the reality of the child I knew with what he did.’  The Columbine tragedy has affected everything in her life, and changed the way in which she views the world around her.  She talks openly about the suicidal thoughts which she and her husband had, and the sheer panic which she would feel every time her older son, Byron, was out of her sight.  A Mother’s Reckoning is touching and moving; it is as chilling as it is insightful, and aims to help those who may be at risk of carrying out similar attacks.  Klebold has discussed not only her own feelings, but has talked about the aftermath’s effects in the wider community, in a compassionate way.  A Mother’s Reckoning is an important memoir, in which Klebold exhibits such bravery, and lays her own self open.

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