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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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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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‘Anne Frank: The Biography’ by Melissa Muller *****

I purchased a revised and expanded edition of Melissa Muller’s Anne Frank: The Biography on an affecting trip to the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam last year.  I have been so looking forward to reading it, but for some reason – emotional turmoil over Anne’s story, I expect, which never fails to bring me to tears – it took me some time to pick it up.  The Sunday Telegraph deems Muller’s biography ‘sensitive, serious and scrupulous’, and the Independent believes it to be an ‘accurate and honest portrait’.  The New York Times writes that Anne Frank: The Biography ‘acts as a supplement to the diary, filling in Anne’s fragmentary view of her own life’.

9781408842102I have read Anne’s own diary – which has sold more than thirty million copies in over seventy languages to date – countless times, as well as rather a few books about her, but Anne Frank: The Biography has become one of my absolute favourites.  It has been translated from its original German by Rita and Robert Kimber.  In this updated edition, Muller ‘details new theories surrounding the family’s betrayal, revelations about the pressure put on their helpers by the Nazi party and the startling discovery that the Franks had applied for a visa to the US.’

In her foreword, Muller writes of Anne’s importance: ‘Over the past sixty years, Anne Frank has become a universal symbol of the oppressed in a world of violence and tyranny.  Her name invokes humanity, tolerance, human rights, and democracy; her image is the epitome of optimism and the will to live.’  Upon her initial reading of Anne’s diary, Muller had many questions which were left unanswered; this inspired her to research and write Anne Frank: The Biography.  At this point, she says, ‘my search began – initially in the 1990s – to search for the person behind the legend, a search for the incidents and events that shaped the life and personality of Annelies Marie Frank.’  Her aim, she goes on, ‘was to gather as many fragments of the mosaic as possible and create as authentic a picture of Anne’s brief life as I could, illuminating the familial and social circumstances that provided the foundation of her life and left their mark on it.’

Anne Frank: The Biography opens with a copy of the Frank and Hollander family trees, which become useful to refer to when grandparents and great-grandparents are introduced into the narrative.  The initial chapter of the book opens on a scene in August 1944.  This, at first, seems like an ordinary day in the annexe in which Anne and her family, along with others, are hiding, but it proves to be the day on which they are discovered by the Dutch Nazis.  After they have been taken away, Muller describes how Miep and Bep, office workers who helped them to hide, retrieve Anne’s diary, not reading a single page so as to protect her privacy.  They hoped to be able to give it back to her after the war.

The second chapter then begins with Anne’s birth in Frankfurt, where her family lived on the outskirts of the city.  Of their new arrival, the Franks ‘had worried that Margot might be jealous of the baby, but Margot laughed with delight when she saw her.  Anne’s ears stuck out comically, and her wild black hair was silky and soft.’  A chronological timeline is followed from this chapter onward, and we are able to chart Anne’s progress as she grows, and becomes more independent.  Particular attention is paid to the craft of Anne’s writing, wishing as she did to become a novelist when she grew up.  ‘Her style,’ Muller writes, ‘improved rapidly, with astonishing speed considering her age…  The more she wrote, the sharper her observations became and the clearer her expression of those observations; the keener, too, her understanding of others and – as if she could step outside herself and look back in – of herself as well.  What she had begun in adolescent dreaminess ultimately achieved, in many passages, a maturity that was as convincing as it was astonishing.’

Political and social occurrences, particularly those which relate to the restrictions placed upon Jewish people, run alongside the lives of the Frank family.  This social context has been provided throughout, and adds depth and understanding.  Upon the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, for instance, Muller states: ‘In one day the social structure of Holland had been transformed.  Where once there had been rich and poor, an upper and a lower class, a right wing and a left wing, and various religious blocs, now only one criterion distinguished good from bad, friend from enemy: was a person anti-German or pro-German?’  Along with historical facts, Muller weaves in the interested and intelligent Anne’s own opinions.  Upon the surrender of the Netherlands, ‘Anne was outraged…  Surrender was a concept she was hearing about for the first time, and she didn’t like the sound of it.  It didn’t suit her character.’

Counter to its title, Anne Frank: The Biography is not simply a biographical account of Anne; it includes details of both her immediate and extended family members on both sides, as well as accounts of family friends, and her schoolmates.  Photographs have been dotted throughout, which adds to the narrative, and shows those around Anne, first in Germany, and then in Amsterdam, where her family moved when she was small.  Perhaps most moving in terms of these portraits is the impression we receive of her doting father, Otto.  When writing about Anne and Margot’s friends in Amsterdam, Muller says: ‘The greatest delight of all was Mr. Frank.  His wife was always there and always friendly, but the children hardly noticed her; they took such things for granted in mothers.  But Otto Frank, at almost six feet a tall man for those days, was special.  With Mr. Frank you could talk and joke about anything.  He made up games, told stories, always had a comforting word, and seemed to forgive Anne everything…  Otto’s high spirits were truly infectious.  And when he was at home he spent more time with his children than most other fathers did.’  Of course, Anne is always the central focus here, but more of an understanding of her character can be gained from seeing those around her.

Muller is so understanding of Anne’s character and qualities, and notes how great an effect being in the annexe had for her: ‘At a time when a young person is recalcitrant and restless, defiant and temperamental, full of questions and searching for answers, baffled, helpless, and often irritable, Anne had no outlets for her feelings, no way to let off steam…  Anne herself described the period from 1942 until well into 1943 as a difficult time.  In the long days of loneliness and despair and of conflict not only with her housemates but also and primarily with herself, Kitty and the diary became her closest confidants.’

Muller’s prose style makes Anne Frank: The Biography a very easy book to read; it is intelligent and measured, not to mention packed with detail, but it still feels readily accessible.  The biography is considerate and meticulously researched and, as one would expect, is both touching and harrowing throughout.  Anne Frank: The Biography is a moving and detailed tribute to a remarkable young woman, and works as the perfect companion to The Diary of a Young Girl.

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