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‘Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia’ by Sigrid Rausing ****

I chose Sigrid Rausing’s Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia as part of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  I was quite looking forward to it, particularly as I have included very little non-fiction on my list.  It seemed as though it would offer something a bit different, and whilst a lot of the themes are similar to some of the other Eastern European literature which I read before it, the very fact that it is a memoir makes it all the more fascinating.

9780802122179Between 1993 and 1994, Sigrid Rausing, a Swedish anthropology student working towards her PhD at University College London, travelled to Estonia to undertake fieldwork.  She stayed in a former Soviet Union border protection zone named Noarootsi.  She met and interviewed many different people for her project.  The book’s blurb proclaims that ‘Rausing’s conversations with the local people touched on many subjects: the economic privations of post-Soviet existence; the bewildering influx of Western products; and the Swedish background of many of their people.’  In this memoir, published twenty years after her fieldwork ended, Rausing reflects upon history and political repression, and the way in which the wider world affected the individuals whom she met.

Of the aims of her PhD, Rausing writes that she wanted to explore the themes of history and memory in Estonia: ‘I was there to study the local perception and understanding of historical events in the context of the Soviet repression and the censorship of history.’  The collective farm which she stayed and worked on folded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and was ‘officially closed down in February 1993, following a vote by all the members in which just one person voted for its continued existence.’  Rausing lived and worked in the village, immersing herself as much as she was able into gatherings and the like, and trying her best to learn the very difficult Estonian language.

One gets a feel for Rausing’s surroundings almost as soon as the book begins.  She writes: ‘The rest of the villages on the peninsula – bedraggled collections of grey wooden houses with thatched rooves, sometimes propped up by shoddy white brick – were like villages all over the Soviet Union at that particular time.  Forgotten places sinking into quiet poverty.’  Rausing gives many examples of the visible changes within Estonia following the breakdown of the Soviet Union, and the effects which poverty and strict rule had: ‘Haapsalu was the nearest town to my prospective field site.  It had been a spick-and-span little coastal town in the 1930s, a summer spa where people came for mineral mud baths.  Now, the baths were long since gone, the paint on the beautiful wooden houses flaking and unkempt…  The main street was wide and muddy, with many shops selling few things, and almost no cars.’

The most fascinating element of Everything is Wonderful is the way in which Rausing manages to be at once a participant and an outsider in Noarootsi.  Because of her position, she is able to gather so many different perspectives on issues affecting Estonian people.  She builds a full picture of life for those villagers and townsfolk ‘forgotten’ by the wider world, often lived in poverty: ‘The people on the collective farm had little connection either with the land or with high culture.  They just got by, day by day, enduring the uncertainty, the confusion, and the quiet fear: fear of unemployment, fear of Russia, fear of the future.’  Everything is Wonderful is stark and bleak, but very human; it is at once enlightening and harrowing.  Rausing’s memoir is a fascinating and important piece of social history, told from a position of retrospect, but working from the notes which she collected whilst on her fieldwork trip.

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Around the World in 80 Books: Some Reviews

9781843430452Death of a Prima Donna by Brina Svit (Slovenia) ****
I have read very little Slovenian literature in my time, and decided to choose an intriguing tome for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. I really enjoyed both the central idea and the structure of Brina Svit’s Death of a Prima Donna, and felt that everything about it – and particularly with regard to the use of a non-linear narrative – worked well. Engaging and cleverly structured, the novel kept me guessing throughout. It is a perceptive and quite intimate book, and one which I would highly recommend.

 

The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia) **** 97814088431611
I very much enjoyed Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love when I read it a few years ago, but for some reason, I hadn’t picked up any of her other work since. I remedied this for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge by choosing The Hired Man for my Croatian stop. From the outset, the male narrative voice which Forna has crafted is engaging, and I was immediately pulled in. There is such a sense of place here, and it has definitely made me long to go back to Croatia. Another real strength of The Hired Man is that quite a lot is left unsaid at times; these careful omissions make the story even more powerful.

 

9781860460586The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andric (Bosnia-Herzegovina) ****
I had high hopes for Ivo Andric’s The Bridge Over the Drina. I loved the central idea, of a bridge being the entire focal point of the novel, and great swathes of Bosnian history unfolding around it. In terms of its chronologically organised and largely fictionalised history, in fact, it is a sweeping tour-de-force, rich in cultural detail, involved with politics and social conditions, and filled with memorable characters. Andric beautifully evokes his homeland, and whilst I certainly preferred some of the separate stories over others, I still very much enjoyed reading the novel in its entirety.

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Snapshots: Munich and Salzburg (February-March 2018)

Snapshots from another fantastic holiday. Featuring trips to Bayern Munich, the Olympic Park in Munich, and Hohensalzburg Castle in Salzburg, alongside beautiful scenery.

Music:
‘Suffragette Suffragette’ by Everything Everything | ‘Better Open the Door’ by Motion City Soundtrack

Find me:
Instagram: @balancinghistorybooks
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/56491386-kirsty
Blog: https://theliterarysisters.wordpress.com
Academic blog: http://womenbetweenthelines.wordpress.com

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Reading the World: Europe (Three)

Five final recommendations from the depths of marvellous Europe!

97800071774241. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (Bosnia)
People of the Book takes place in the aftermath of the Bosnian War, as a young book conservator arrives in Sarajevo to restore a lost treasure. When Hannah Heath gets a call in the middle of the night in her Sydney home about a precious medieval manuscript which has been recovered from the smouldering ruins of wartorn Sarajevo, she knows she is on the brink of the experience of a lifetime. A renowned book conservator, she must now make her way to Bosnia to start work on restoring The Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish prayer book – to discover its secrets and piece together the story of its miraculous survival. But the trip will also set in motion a series of events that threaten to rock Hannah’s orderly life, including her encounter with Ozren Karamen, the young librarian who risked his life to save the book. As meticulously researched as all of Brooks’ previous work, ‘People of the Book’ is a gripping and moving novel about war, art, love and survival.’

2. Purge by Sofi Oksanen (Estonia)
‘Deep in the overgrown Estonian forest, two women are caught in a deadly snare. Zara is a prostitute, and a murderer. Aliide is a communist sympathizer, the widow of a party member, a blood traitor. And retribution is coming for them both. A haunting, intimate and gripping story of suspicion and betrayal set against a backdrop of the oppressive Soviet regime and European war.’

3. The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy (Poland) 9780142003077
‘In the last months of the Nazi occupation of Poland, two children are left by their father and stepmother to find safety in a dense forest. Because their real names will reveal their Jewishness, they are renamed “Hansel” and “Gretel.” They wander in the woods until they are taken in by Magda, an eccentric and stubborn old woman called “witch” by the nearby villagers. Magda is determined to save them, even as a German officer arrives in the village with his own plans for the children. Combining classic themes of fairy tales and war literature, Louise Murphy s haunting novel of journey and survival, of redemption and memory, powerfully depicts how war is experienced by families and especially by children.’

4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (All over Europe)
‘The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. The black sign, painted in white letters that hangs upon the gates, reads: Opens at Nightfalll Closes at Dawn As the sun disappears beyond the horizon, all over the tents small lights begin to flicker, as though the entirety of the circus is covered in particularly bright fireflies. When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears. Le Cirque des Reves The Circus of Dreams. Now the circus is open. Now you may enter.’

5. Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (Switzerland) 9780140147476
‘Into the rarefied atmosphere of the Hotel du Lac timidly walks Edith Hope, romantic novelist and holder of modest dreams. Edith has been exiled from home after embarrassing herself and her friends. She has refused to sacrifice her ideals and remains stubbornly single. But among the pampered women and minor nobility Edith finds Mr Neville, and her chance to escape from a life of humiliating spinsterhood is renewed…’

 

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Reading the World: Europe (One)

Since setting out my Reading the World project, and working out which books fit best for each country, I have found that there are a wealth of countries which I have read only one or two books from or about, and some which I have not touched upon at all.  Rather than discard these posts altogether, I thought that it would be a good idea to bring them together under the broad heading of ‘Europe’, and schedule a few posts which showcase fiction and non-fiction from many other countries on the continent.  Without further ado, here is part one.

1. Dracula by Bram Stoker (Transylvania, Romania) 9780141199337
‘A chilling masterpiece of the horror genre, Dracula also illuminated dark corners of Victorian sexuality. When Jonathan Harker visits Transylvania to advise Count Dracula on a London home, he makes a horrifying discovery. Soon afterwards, a number of disturbing incidents unfold in England: an unmanned ship is wrecked at Whitby; strange puncture marks appear on a young woman’s neck; and the inmate of a lunatic asylum raves about the arrival of his ‘Master’, while a determined group of adversaries prepares to face the terrifying Count.’

2. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (many different places around Europe)
‘Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’. Her discovery plunges her into a world she never dreamed of – a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an evil hidden in the depths of history. In those few quiet moments, she unwittingly assumes a quest she will discover is her birthright – a hunt for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the Dracula myth. Deciphering obscure signs and hidden texts, reading codes worked into the fabric of medieval monastic traditions, and evading terrifying adversaries, one woman comes ever closer to the secret of her own past and a confrontation with the very definition of evil. Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel is an adventure of monumental proportions – a captivating tale that blends fact and fantasy, history and the present with an assurance that is almost unbearably suspenseful – and utterly unforgettable.’

97807553908543. The Book of Summers by Emylia Hall (Hungary; review here)
‘Beth Lowe has been sent a parcel. Inside is a letter informing her that her long-estranged mother has died, and a scrapbook Beth has never seen before. Entitled The Book of Summers, it’s stuffed with photographs and mementos complied by her mother to record the seven glorious childhood summers Beth spent in rural Hungary. It was a time when she trod the tightrope between separated parents and two very different countries; her bewitching but imperfect Hungarian mother and her gentle, reticent English father; the dazzling house of a Hungarian artist and an empty-feeling cottage in deepest Devon. And it was a time that came to the most brutal of ends the year Beth turned sixteen. Since then, Beth hasn’t allowed herself to think about those years of her childhood. But the arrival of The Book of Summers brings the past tumbling back into the present; as vivid, painful and vital as ever.’

4. Liquidation by Imre Kertesz (Hungary)
‘Kingbitter, an editor at a publishing house on the verge of closure, believes himself to have been the closest friend of a celebrated writer and Auschwitz survivor, B, who recently committed suicide. Amongst the papers B has left him, Kingbitter finds a play entitled Liquidation that uncannily predicts the behaviour of B’s ex-wife, his mistress and Kingbitter himself. As he obsessively reads and rereads the play, Kingbitter becomes transfixed with the idea that buried within these papers is B’s great novel: the book that will explain his relationship with Auschwitz. Harrowing but also bleakly comic, Liquidation is both a literary detective novel and an exploration of how B’s decision to end his life after surviving the horrors of Auschwitz affects those he leaves behind.’

5. The Tiger’s Wife by Thea Obrecht (unnamed Balkan country) 9780753827406
‘Natalia is on a quest: to discover the truth about her beloved grandfather. He has died far from home, in circumstances shrouded in mystery. Recalling stories her grandfather told her as a child, Natalia suspects he may have died trying to unravel two mysteries. One was the fate of a tiger which escaped during German bombing raids in 1941; the other a man who claimed to be immortal. But, as Natalia learns, there are no simple truths or easy answers in this landscape echoing with myths but still scarred by war.’

 

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Reading the World: Greece

Hopefully the weather is beautiful wherever you are today, but if not, why not journey to Greece with me for a reading holiday?  The following are five books which I would heartily recommend if you are interested in reading about Greece in all its glory.

1. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres 9780749397548
‘It is 1941 and Captain Antonio Corelli, a young Italian officer, is posted to the Greek island of Cephallonia as part of the occupying forces. At first he is ostracised by the locals, but as a conscien-tious but far from fanatical soldier, whose main aim is to have a peaceful war, he proves in time to be civilised, humorous – and a consumate musician. When the local doctor’s daughter’s letters to her fiance go unanswered, the working of the eternal triangle seems inevitable. But can this fragile love survive as a war of bestial savagery gets closer and the lines are drawn between invader and defender?’

2. The Iliad by Homer
‘One of the foremost achievements in Western literature, Homer’s “Iliad” tells the story of the darkest episode in the “Trojan War”. At its centre is Achilles, the greatest warrior-champion of the Greeks, and his refusal to fight after being humiliated by his leader Agamemnon. But when the Trojan Hector kills Achilles’ close friend Patroclus, he storms back into battle to take revenge – even though he knows this will ensure his own untimely death. Interwoven with this tragic sequence of events are powerfully moving descriptions of the ebb and flow of battle, of the domestic world inside Troy’s besieged city of Ilium, and of the conflicts between the Gods on Olympus as they argue over the fate of mortals.’

97802419514603. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
‘Escaping the ills of the British climate, the Durrell family – acne-ridden Margo, gun-toting Leslie, bookworm Lawrence and budding naturalist Gerry, along with their long-suffering mother and Roger the dog – take off for the island of Corfu. But the Durrells find that, reluctantly, they must share their various villas with a menagerie of local fauna – among them scorpions, geckos, toads, bats and butterflies. Recounted with immense humour and charm “My Family and Other Animals” is a wonderful account of a rare, magical childhood. ‘

4. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
‘For Penelope, wife of Odysseus, maintaining a kingdom while her husband was off fighting the Trojan war was not a simple business. Already aggrieved that he had been lured away due to the shocking behaviour of her beautiful cousin Helen, Penelope must bring up her wayward son, face down scandalous rumours and keep over a hundred lustful, greedy and bloodthirsty suitors at bay…And then, when Odysseus finally returns and slaughters the murderous suitors, he brutally hangs Penelope’s twelve beloved maids. What were his motives? And what was Penelope really up to? Critically acclaimed when it was first published as part of Canongate’s “Myth” series, and following a very successful adaptation by the RSC, this new edition of “The Penelopiad” sees Margaret Atwood give Penelope a modern and witty voice to tell her side of the story, and set the record straight for good.’

5. The Greek Myths by Robert Graves 9780241952740
‘The Greek Myths is the definitive and comprehensive edition of Robert Graves’ classic imaginative and poetic retelling of the Greek myths. ‘Icarus disobeyed his father’s instructions and began soaring towards the sun, rejoiced by the lift of his great sweeping wings. Presently, when Daedalus looked over his shoulder, he could no longer see Icarus; but scattered feathers floated on the waves below…’ Including many of the greatest stories ever told – the labours of Hercules, the voyage of the Argonauts, Theseus and the minotaur, Midas and his golden touch, the Trojan War and Odysseus’ journey home – Robert Graves’ superb and comprehensive retelling of the Greek myths for a modern audience has been regarded for over fifty years as the definitive version. With a novelist’s skill and a poet’s eye, Graves draws on the entire canon of ancient literature, bringing together all the elements of every myth into one epic and unforgettable story. Ideal for the first time reader, it can be read as a single, continuous narrative, while full commentaries, with cross-references, interpretations, variants and explanations, as well as a comprehensive index of names, make it equally valuable as a work of scholarly reference for anyone seeking an authoritative and detailed account of the gods, heroes and extraordinary events that provide the bedrock of Western literature. The result is a classic among classics, a treasure trove of extraordinary tales and a masterful work of literature in its own right.’

 

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