2

‘If This is a Woman’ by Sarah Helm *****

In If This is a Woman, Sarah Helm has written utterly phenomenal study. She tells of the atrocities of Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp during the Second World War, and the only one of its kind exclusively for women prisoners. It is the first book to write extensively about Ravensbruck, one of the final camps to be liberated by the Russians.

9780349120034Only ten percent of Ravensbruck’s prisoners were Jewish, contrary to a lot of other camps; the rest were arrested due to opposition to the Nazi Party, and were drawn from such groups as communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Resistance in various European countries. There were also others deemed ‘asocials’, who ranged from lesbians to Gypsies. Among the prisoners were ‘the cream of Europe’s women’, including various countesses, a former British golfing champion, and the niece of General de Gaulle.

Helm draws upon the published testimonies of Ravensbruck’s prisoners, as well as seeking out those who survived the brutal conditions, and studying records of the court case which followed, aiming as it did to punish those who were in charge. Her research has been carried out impeccably, particularly considering that the majority of the papers relating to prisoners and conditions were burnt before liberation. Helm has aimed to create ‘a biography of Ravensbruck beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, piecing the broken story back together again as best I could’. The death toll from the camp is unknown, but is estimated to be somewhere between 30,000 and 90,000.

Helm’s writing style is immensely readable, and her research meticulous. If This is a Woman is such a well paced account, and the author never shies away from demonstrating how harrowing the conditions were, and how horrific the injuries and deaths which many within Ravensbruck faced. In trying to tell the individual stories of as many women as she possibly could, both prisoners and those who guarded them, she has added an invaluable biography to the field of Holocaust and Second World War studies.

If This is a Woman won the Longman-History Today Prize, which was incredibly well deserved. One can only hope that further accolades follow. <i>If This is a Woman</i> is, without a doubt, one of my favourite historical studies in terms of its far-reaching material and the sensitivity which has been continually demonstrated, as well as one of my books of the year.

Purchase from The Book Depository

Advertisements
4

The Book Trail: A Persephone Special

We begin this edition of The Book Trail with one of my favourite reads of late, Elizabeth Jenkins’ depiction of a real Victorian murder case, Harriet.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed…’ feature on Goodreads to compile this list.  Harriet is a Persephone publication; each of the recommended reads on its page, as well as pages for following books, is also published by the same wonderful press.

1. Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins 13607031
This story traces the life of Harriet Richardson, a mentally-disabled young woman who was allowed to die of starvation by her husband.

 

2. Tea With Mr. Rochester by Frances Towers
When these captivating and at times bizarre stories were published posthumously in 1949, Angus Wilson wrote: ‘It appears no exaggeration to say that Frances Towers’s death in 1948 may have robbed us of a figure of more than purely contemporary significance. At first glance one might be disposed to dismiss Miss Towers as an imitation Jane Austen, but it would be a mistaken judgment, for her cool detachment and ironic eye are directed more often than not against the sensible breeze that blasts and withers, the forthright candour that kills the soul. Miss Towers flashes and shines now this way, now that, like a darting sunfish.’ ‘At her best her prose style is a shimmering marvel,’ wrote the Independent on Sunday, ‘and few writers can so deftly and economically delineate not only the outside but the inside of a character…There’s always more going on than you can possibly fathom.’ And the Guardian said: ‘Her social range may not be wide, but her descriptions are exquisite and her tone poised between the wry and the romantic.’

 

14458613. Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories by Mollie Panter-Downes
‘For fifty years Mollie Panter-Downes’ name was associated with “The New Yorker”, for which she wrote a regular ‘Letter from London’, book reviews and over thirty short stories; of the twenty-one in “Good Evening, Mrs Craven”, written between 1939 and 1944, only two had ever been reprinted – these very English stories have, until now, been unavailable to English readers.  Exploring most aspects of English domestic life during the war, they are about separation, sewing parties, fear, evacuees sent to the country, obsession with food, the social revolutions of wartime.’

 

4. The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
The setting for this, the third novel by Dorothy Whipple Persephone have published, is Saunby Priory, a large house somewhere in England which has seen better times. We are shown the two Marwood girls, who are nearly grown-up, their father, the widower Major Marwood, and their aunt; then, as soon as their lives have been described, the Major proposes marriage to a woman much younger than himself – and many changes begin.

 

5. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher 2703159
Although this novel first appeared in 1924, it deals in an amazingly contemporary manner with the problems of a family in which both husband and wife are oppressed and frustrated by the roles they are expected to play. Evangeline Knapp is the perfect, compulsive housekeeper, while her husband, Lester, is a poet and a dreamer. Suddenly, through a nearly fatal accident, their roles are reversed: Lester is confined to home in a wheelchair and his wife must work to support the family. The changes that take place between husband and wife and particularly between parents and children are both fascinating and poignant.

 

6. Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd
Tells the tale of a woman who goes on a cruise and is swept overboard. She lives for three years on a desert island before being rescued by a destroyer in 1943. When she returns to England it seems to her to have gone mad: she cannot buy clothes without ‘coupons’, and she is considered uncivilised if she walks barefoot or is late for meals.

 

7. Doreen by Barbara Noble
Describes the mind of a child torn between her mother, whom she leaves behind in London, and the couple who take her in.

 

8. Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski 163544
Hilary Wainwright, poet and intellectual, returns after the war to a blasted and impoverished France in order to trace a child lost five years before. Is the child really his? And does he want him?

 

Which of these books have you read?  Have any of them piqued your interest?  Which is your favourite Persephone publication?

0

‘The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial’ by Maggie Nelson ****

I was supposed to be reading established poet and non-fiction author Maggie Nelson’s  The Argonauts for a book club I’m a member of, but unable as I was to find a copy, I plumped for The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial instead.  This piece of extended non-fiction, which deals with the aftermath of her aunt’s unsolved murder in the late sixties, and new evidence pointing to her killer, was first published in 2007.  Of all of Nelson’s books, this was the one which appealed to me the most.

The blurb piqued my interest immediately when browsing for Nelson’s books on my local library catalogue.  It reads: ‘After asking for a lift to her hometown for spring break, Jane Mixer, a first-year law student at the University of Michigan, was brutally murdered in 1969; her body was found the next day, a few miles away from campus.’  Jane was shot twice in the head, and then ‘strangled viciously with a stocking that did not belong to her’.  Nelson, whose aunt was killed before she was born, uses The Red Parts to trace her aunt’s death, as well as the trial which took place thirty-five years afterwards.  Jane’s case was reopened in 2004 ‘after a DNA match identified a new suspect, who would soon be arrested and tried.’9781784705794

‘Resurrecting her interior world during the trial – in all its horror, grief, obsession, recklessness, scepticism and downright confusion – Maggie Nelson has produced a work of profound integrity and, in its subtle indeterminacy, deadly moral precision.’   The Red Parts has been hailed by various critics as ‘remarkable’, ‘Didion-esque’, and a ‘darkly intelligent page-turner’, which gives ‘the sense that the writer is writing for her life’, as well as Jane’s.

Within her book, Nelson is candid from the very beginning.  She writes of the process of putting such a painful familial past down on paper, and how the trial and its evidence impacted upon her, her sister, and her mother, Jane’s elder sister.   In her preface, Nelson calls the book ‘a peculiar, pressurized meditation on time’s relation to violence’.  She goes on to say: ‘One aim I had while writing was to allow the events of the trial, the events of my childhood, the events of Jane’s murder, and the act of writing to share a single spatial and temporal moment.’

Initially, police attributed Jane’s murder to a man who had killed many other young girls in what were collectively called the ‘Michigan Murders’.  The new evidence found, however, attributed her murder to someone else entirely, a retired nurse.   When Nelson sees him on trial, she writes: ‘I feel disoriented too.  Where I imagined I might find the “face of evil,” I am finding the face of Elmer Fudd.’  She goes on to describe the difficulty which she has in coming to terms with what he may have done: ‘I watch the light and I watch his hands and I try to imagine them around the trigger of a gun, I try to imagine them strangling someone.  Strangling Jane.  I know this kind of imagining is useless and awful.  I wonder how I’d feel if I imagined it over and over again and later found out that he didn’t do it.’

The Red Parts is very brave and directly honest; it is as objective as it can be, and whilst emotional at times, it does not read – as one imagines it so easily could have done – as a piece of overblown melodrama on the part of the family.  She talks openly about all of the grief in her life, from her father’s death, to seeing her boyfriend overdose more than once.  The Red Parts is a multilayered and well thought through work, which merges biography and autobiography in a seamless and interesting manner.  Nelson’s writing is engaging from the very beginning, and is sure to appeal to anyone who has enjoyed the likes of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

Two Reviews: ‘Take Courage’ and ‘Falling Slowly’

9781784740214Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis ****
I am, and always have been, a huge fan of Anne Bronte, and when I first heard about Samantha Ellis’ focused biography of her life, I was rather excited. I found Take Courage absorbing, and quite enjoyed the relatively casual writing style which the biography takes. Ellis’ account is far-reaching, and includes a lot of interesting critique about her prose and poetry, as well as thorough studies of each of her siblings, and her parents. The way in which chapters follow different figures, from Branwell and Emily, to the Brontes’ housekeeper, Tabby, is effective.

Take Courage is well written on the whole, although it did feel a little too colloquial at times. I did, however, like the way in which Ellis added her own personal story alongside Anne’s, giving a more personal dimension to the whole. Take Courage is well thought out and enjoyable, and awfully touching, particularly toward the end.

 

Falling Slowly by Anita Brookner *** 9780375704246
There is a slight detachment at play within Anita Brookner’s Falling Slowly. The plot is rather drawn out, and it did not feel as though there were enough occurrences or character developments here to sustain a novel of this length. Very little happened, even in comparison to other, slower books of Brookner’s. The characters never really came to life; I found them unrealistic, particularly toward the end of the book. The relationships drawn between them too are very bizarre, and not at all what I was expecting. Although Falling Slowly follows similar conventions to some of Brookner’s other books, I did not enjoy it anywhere near as much. Whilst it is not badly written, the dialogue feels awfully dated, and it is perhaps therefore more of a 2.5 star read than a 3.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

One From the Archive: ‘The Journals of Sylvia Plath: 1950-1962’, edited by Karen V. Kukil *****

Sylvia Plath’s Journals have just been reissued by Faber & Faber.  In this new edition, edited by Karen V. Kukil, the Associate Curator of Special Collections at Smith College,  ‘an exact and complete transcription of the journals kept by Sylvia Plath during the last twelve years of her life’ has been included, and ‘there are no omissions, deletions or corrections of Plath’s words in this edition’. Her journals, says Kukil, ‘are characterized by the vigorous immediacy with which she records her inner thoughts and feelings and the intricacies of her daily life’.  She goes on to explain the way in which, ‘Every effort has been made… to give the reader direct access to Sylvia Plath’s actual words without interruption or interpretation’.

The main body of the diary spans from its beginnings in July 1950 to 1959, and the appendices stretch up to 1962, the year in which Plath committed suicide at the age of thirty.  The entirety is unabridged, and has been taken from twenty three original manuscripts in the Sylvia Plath Collection at Smith College in Massachusetts.  They document her ‘student years at Smith College and Newnham College, Cambridge, her marriage to Ted Hughes, and two years of teaching and writing in New England’.

Journals contains a wealth of new material, all of which was sealed by Hughes until February 2013.  The journals have been split into separate sections, each of which spans a different period in the poet’s life.  Photocopies of her journal pages have been included at the start of every one.  These show the progression of her writing, and are really a lovely touch to add to the wonderful whole.  Two sections of glossy photographs can also be found within the book’s pages.  As one would expect with such a bulk of work, the notes section and index are both extensive.

The first journal, dating from when Plath was just eighteen years old, opens with a poem by Louis MacNeice, and two quotes written by Yeats and Joyce respectively.  The first entry which Plath writes reads like an echo for much of her life: ‘I may never be happy, but tonight I am content’.

Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Cantor, Cape Cod, 1952

Throughout her journals, Plath is so warm, full of vivacity, and strikingly original.  In an entry in the first journal, written in August 1950, she writes: ‘I love people.  Everybody.  I love them; I think, as a stamp collector loves his collection.  Every story, every incident, every bit of conversation is raw material for me.  I would like to be everyone, a cripple, a dying man, a whore, and then come back to write about my thoughts, my emotions, as that person.  But I am not omniscient.  I have to live my life, and it is the only one I’ll ever have’.

Each and every entry is filled to the brim with musings, philosophy, emotions, questions and answers.  Plath is so very honest, and incredibly witty too.  When speaking about a dentist removing her wisdom teeth, she says: ‘The doctor pinned the bib around my neck; I was just about prepared for him to stick an apple in my mouth and strew sprigs of parsley on my head’.  Some of the entries reflect upon her day, and others are small self-contained essays about a veritable plethora of subjects.  Amongst other things, she touches upon such topics as literature, love, communal living, politics and the notion of democracy, and then burrows into each one of them in turn, providing the reader with her insights into and musings of each.  Some of the vignettes included are so very charming.  The following occurred whilst Plath was looking after a family of three children over the summer of 1950:

“Your hair smells nice, Pinny.” I said, sniffing her freshly washed blonde locks.  “It smells like soap.”
“Does my eye?” she asked, wriggling her warm, nightgowned body on my arms.
“Does your eye what?”
“Smell nice?”
“But why should your eye smell nice?”
“I got soap in it,” she explained.

Plath’s writing, as anyone who has read even a single one of her poems will know, is absolutely beautiful.  Her descriptions particularly are gorgeous: ‘The two lights over the front steps were haloed with a hazy nimbus of mist, and strange insects fluttered up against the screen, fragile, wing-thin and blinded, dazed, numbed by the brilliance’, and ‘The air flowed about me like thick molasses, and the shadows from the moon and street lamp split like schizophrenic blue phantoms, grotesque and faintly repetitious’.  Throughout, she makes the everyday entrancing, and notices the positive and beautiful qualities in everything which her words touch upon, however much we may take the element in question for granted in the modern world.  The scenes which she builds are so vivid.

The importance of Plath’s art is prevalent immediately: ‘Perhaps someday I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated.  But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow’.  Poems have been included throughout, all of them placed into the volume in the order in which they first appear in her journals.  It goes without saying that each and every one is perfect, startling and exquisitely crafted.  At times, she provides a fascinating commentary upon her own writing, beautifully analysing her own finely wrought sentences.

Plath was such an intelligent woman, and throughout she writes with such clarity, even in the earliest journal entries.  She both praises and chastises herself and humankind – for example, writing ‘I think I am worthwhile just because I have optical nerves and can try to put down what they perceive.  What a fool!’  There are hints of the growth of her coming depression too.  She writes in 1950, for example, that ‘I have much to live for, yet unaccountably I am sick and sad’.  Plath also continually muses on life and death and the vast chasm between the two, as well as the very notion of existence: ‘Edna St. Vincent Millay is dead and she will never push the dirt from her tomb and see the apple-scented rain in slanting silver lines, never’, and ‘I loved [Antoine de Saint-]

Sylvia Plath’s high school graduation photograph

Exupery; I will read him again, and he will talk to me, not being dead, or gone.  Is that life after death – mind living on paper and flesh living in offspring?’

The Journals of Sylvia Plath is a book to be savoured, and is a wonderful companion to the stunning Letters Home, another Faber & Faber must for any fan of the poet.  Both books are sure to delight without a doubt.  In them, Plath provides us with a window into her world, and her journals particularly are written in such a way that it feels as though we as readers are her closest confidantes.  Nothing is hidden from us, and each and every entry drips with verity.  Even the biggest of her fans will learn swathes from reading this beautiful and important book.

Purchase from the Book Depository

0

One From the Archive: ‘Him & Me’ by Jack and Michael Whitehall ****

‘Him & Me’ by Jack and Michael Whitehall

Turn the television on, and you are almost certain to see something featuring British comedian Jack Whitehall.  He currently stars in the BBC3 series ‘Bad Education’ which he penned himself, Channel 4’s ‘Fresh Meat’ where he plays posh student JP, and in a new chat show-style series called ‘Backchat’, which he appears on with his father, Michael.  In fact, Jack is so popular in the United Kingdom at present that he was voted ‘King of Comedy’ at the 2012 British Comedy Awards.

In Him & Me, Jack and Michael ‘open up the rich and plentiful family archives and share their hilarious memories’.  Throughout, photographs and illustrations, all penned by Jack himself, have been included.  The book has been split into eleven separate parts, beginning with ‘First Memories’ and ending with ‘All Growed Up’.

Him & Me begins with an amusing introduction, in which Jack describes the point at which he told his father that he had been asked to write a book: ‘It is a revelation that is met with utter derision.  Penguin are accused of having let their standards slip and I am told that it is my duty to literature to turn the offer down’.  He explains, ‘I must make it clear that the sole purpose of writing this book was not to show my father that all the money he’d, quote, “wasted on my education to travel up and down the country telling jokes about my penis” was not frittered away and that I could achieve something, but it certainly was a factor’.  Jack then goes on to say, ‘Writing this book has been totes amazeballs (I will be using the odd young-person phrase like this throughout the book because I know how much it annoys my dad)’.

Jack and Michael Whitehall (from the Telegraph)

Different chapters have been penned by both authors, and annotations from the pair occur throughout the book. Him & Me begins with Michael’s memories of Jack’s birth, in which actor Nigel Havers is present, dressed in a dinner jacket.  Michael’s position as a former theatrical agent has led Jack to include a glossary of all of the celebrity names dropped, merely to aid younger readers.

The information included within the book’s pages is largely anecdotal, and incredibly funny.  It is possible to imagine the pair telling these stories to avid listeners, and the chatty tone of the book (at least where Jack’s chapters are concerned, anyway) only adds to this.  From a creepy children’s entertainer – ‘I still worry that if I were to say his name in the mirror three times he might burst through it and choke me to death with a balloon poodle’, says Jack – and Jack’s troublesome antics at Marlborough College, where he was found posing naked for a picture by ‘a small squat Damien Hirst lookalike with a passion for architecture’, to a Cornish camping holiday where, ‘in the middle of a field in Cornwall Michael Whitehall was still dressed in a three-piece linen suit’, to an incident in which Michael tried to kill a rat infestation with an air rifle: ‘I suspect that – even if it did still function – the chances of my father being able to hit a moving target were extremely slim’.

Each chapter concludes with several rather amusing comments written by the other party.  The father and son complement each other’s sense of humour marvellously, and Him & Me is sure to delight every fan of Jack Whitehall – and, indeed, of his rather politically incorrect but incredibly funny father.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

Reading the World: ‘Manderley Forever: A Biography of Daphne du Maurier’ by Tatiana de Rosnay ****

‘As a bilingual bestselling novelist with a mixed Franco-British bloodline and a host of eminent forebears, Tatiana de Rosnay is the perfect candidate to write a biography of Daphne du Maurier. As a thirteen-year-old, de Rosnay read and reread Rebecca, becoming a lifelong devotee of Du Maurie’s fiction. Now de Rosnay pays homage to the writer who influenced her so deeply, following Du Maurier from a shy seven-year-old to a rebellious sixteen-year-old, a twenty- something newlywed, and finally, a cantankerous old woman. With a rhythm and intimacy to its prose characteristic of all de Rosnay’s works, Manderley Forever is a vividly compelling portrait and celebration of an intriguing, hugely popular and (in her time) critically underrated writer.’

9781250099136I love du Maurier, and she is easily one of my favourite authors.  I have also really enjoyed de Rosnay’s work to date, and when I found out about the French publication of Manderley Forever, I willed it to be translated into English as soon as was possible.

I love the way in which Manderley Forever is written.  I found the first section particularly incredibly spellbinding.  There was almost a magical quality to its prose, as well as the story it relayed.  Whilst the rest of the book was undoubtedly fascinating, I do feel as though it unfortunately lost a little of its sparkle.  Perhaps this is because I knew relatively little about Daphne as a child, but was well versed in her life and writing from adolescence onward.  The childhood section was refreshing, I suppose, in that it held some surprises for me.

There is an undoubted admiration on de Rosnay’s behalf, and the whole has been written and researched lovingly.  I really liked the way in which de Rosnay drew a parallel story alongside du Maurier’s biography, by going on a personal ‘pilgrimage’ to all of the places in which du Maurier lived and visited.  De Rosnay is thorough, and presents her subject in such detail.

The section which included du Maurier’s obituaries was a really nice touch, particularly with regard to the legacy which she left behind.  It also drew a very fitting conclusion to the biography.  The translation, too, was flawless.  One can certainly tell that de Rosnay is first and foremost a novelist.  I can only hope that she writes more such fantastic portraits as this in future.

Purchase from The Book Depository