6

Non-Fiction November: ‘Prague Winter’ by Madeleine Albright ****

Madeleine Albright, a Democrat who served as the first female Secretary of State in US history (1997-2001), has written an incredible memoir of her early life in Prague Winter. Subtitled ‘A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1945’, it deals with her family’s experiences during and after the Second World War, and also serves as a wider history of what was then Czechoslovakia, and is now Czechia.

Before she was twelve years old, Albright’s once settled life was upended by the Nazi invasion of Prague, where she was living with her mother and father. Other pivotal incidents which occurred during her early life were the Battle of Britain, ‘the near-total destruction of European Jewry, the Allied victory in World War II, the rise of communism, and the onset of the Cold War.’ When the Nazis invaded Prague, and went on to absorb the entire country of Czechoslovakia into Germany, Albright notes that her parents temporarily sent her to live with her grandmother, ‘and did their best to do what their beloved country had done: disappear’.

Her family spent the Second World War in London, as her father’s job in radio broadcasting allowed them an opportunity to relocate. He worked on BBC broadcasts, which many could still pick up – although illegally – in their homeland. Of her father during this period, Albright reflects: ‘My father worked hard because his of passion for democracy but also because we needed money; the more he wrote, the more he was paid, which was still not much.’ Being in London meant that Albright and her younger sister were now in the path of the Blitz, but both thankfully emerged relatively unscathed. The Korbels later moved to quieter towns on the outskirts of London, which were far more peaceful.

In her memoir, Albright has chosen to make extensive use of a number of sources – her own memories, the written memoirs of her parents, interviews with her contemporaries, and documents which have recently become available to the public. She begins her memoir by giving a rather thorough history of how Czechoslovakia, as she knew it, came to be; in its earlier chapters, at least, Prague Winter feels more like a sweeping history book of a geographical location rather than a personal memoir.

In something which seems astonishing, but is perhaps not due to the circumstances in which the Korbel family lived, Albright was unaware of her family’s Jewish heritage until ‘many decades after the war’. It was only when she began to serve as the US Secretary of State at the age of 59, that she learnt that over twenty of her own relatives had perished in the Holocaust. She comments: ‘I had been brought up to believe in a history of my Czechoslovak homeland that was less tangled and more straightforward than the reality.’

Touchingly, Albright’s thorough and heartbreaking memoir has been dedicated ‘to those who did not survive but taught us how to live – and why.’ As one would expect, there is much emphasis on Hitler’s rise to power within the pages of Prague Winter, and its effects are felt throughout, both on a personal level, and throughout her home country. I was a scholar of this period in history for many years, and still read about it keenly. I am pleased to note that Albright’s account did offer some historical context which I was previously unaware of, and proved quite a learning curve in several places.

Split into four distinct parts, Prague Winter moves chronologically between the pre-war period, and November 1948, when the Korbel family emigrated to the United States. Really well situated historically, and evidently a product of extensive detailed research, Prague Winter is a readable and accessible memoir. I very much admired the way in which Albright places herself within the narrative; she is both part of the action, and an overseer. I also liked the way in which she intertwines the personal and political, and the way in which she deals with such a fractious, and fractured, time. Her prose is filled with confidence and certainty, and is a wonderful choice to pick up for anyone interested in this period, or in Czechia generally. Prague Winter is very moving, and highly recommended.

2

‘Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence’ by Nick Hunt ****

Weather fascinates me, and therefore when I spotted Nick Hunt’s Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence in Fopp, I did not hesitate before picking up a copy.  This non-fiction work was shortlisted for the Edward Stanford Travel Awards in 2018, and chosen as a book of the year by The Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph, and The Spectator respectively.  Amy Liptrot observes that the book is ‘packed with wonder’, and Jan Morris concurs, writing that it is ‘full to the brim with learning, entertainment, description, scientific fact and conjectural fiction.  It is travel writing in excelsis.’

9781473665750In Where the Wild Winds Are, Hunt sets out to follow four of Europe’s prevalent named winds.  He begins in Cumbria with the Helm, the only named wind in Britain, before travelling to Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy to find the Bora which blows through all three countries, causing havoc for residents.  Hunt then searches for the ‘snow-eating’ Foehn in Switzerland’s alpine valleys, and the Mistral in the South of France, which ‘animated and tormented Vincent Van Gogh.’  Soon, Hunt ‘finds himself borne along by the very forces he is pursuing, through rain, blizzards, howling gales, and back through time itself, for where the wild winds are, there are also myths and legends, history and hearsay, sacrifice and superstition…’.

In his prologue, which is entitled ‘Blown Away’, Hunt reflects on his experience of the Great Storm which hit Britain in 1987.  Just a child at the time, he remembers how he was almost swept away by a gust of wind.  At this point, his obsession with one of our most unpredictable types of weather began.  Although he goes on to say that he did not take up a career in meteorology, or anything of the sort, what he did become ‘was someone with an urge to travel, and especially to travel by walking, which allows you to follow paths not dictated by road or rail, paths not marked on any map, or to follow no path at all; to wander and to wonder as freely as your feet can take you.  But every journey has a logic, even if it’s an invisible one.  All travelling, I came to understand, is an act of following something: whether a coastline, an ancient migration, a trade route, a border or someone else’s footsteps.’

Hunt then recollects the moment at which he came across a map of Europe’s winds, which linked regions in a way he had not previously considered.  He writes: ‘The fact that these invisible powers had names, rather than simply compass directions that described where they were from, gave them a sense of majesty, even of personality.  They sounded like characters I could meet.  These swooping, plunging arrows suggested routes I might follow, trails that had not been walked before.  As soon as I saw that map I knew: I would follow the winds.’  Thus, his quest to follow four winds – sometimes successfully, and sometimes not so – ensued.

Hunt chose to locate four winds as ‘a nod to the proverbial four winds and the four points of the compass.’  The book has consequently been split into four corresponding sections, each of which contains a map of his route.  He also lets us, the readers, know about the daunting elements of the task which he set himself: ‘It was clear that to follow the wind meant following uncertainty, allowing myself to be carried along by the unknown and the informed, the guessed-at and the half-imagined.  Chasing the invisible was in many ways a quixotic quest, which appealed to my romantic side…’.

Hunt’s writing oscillates between matter-of-fact and descriptive.  When in Croatia, he writes, for instance: ‘After climbing for an hour I reached a layer of dense cloud, which brought about the sensation of entering a different realm.  I waded upward through submarine light, condensation slapping on the wet forest floor like rain, with the muscular trunks of beech trees looming through saturated air.  Deciduous trees gave way to pines.  Here and there blobs of snow lay like stranded jellyfish.’  Of one of the winds which he does locate, he comments: ‘It was in my ears, but it wasn’t blowing; nor was it moaning, whistling, howling, or any of the other words usually used to capture wind.  It was less a sound than a sensation, a nameless energetic thing that erased the line between hearing and feeling; for the first time in my life, I understood sound as a physical force.  It was in my lungs, under my skin.’

Before picking up Where the Wild Winds Are, I had not encountered a travel book like it.  Although it took a little while to really get into, I found myself fascinated by the mixture of elements which Hunt has woven in, from the history of forecasting the weather and the tools which the process entailed, to the quirky and eccentric characters whom he met along the way.  There is a definite human perspective which has been considered, strengthened because Hunt is always keen to ask those he meets how they feel about the wind, and how it affects their day to day lives.

Where the Wild Winds Are is not as focused upon the weather as I expected it would be.  Whilst Hunt’s aim is to follow the four named winds, he does so in a manner which is largely unscientific.  He discusses many things as he goes about his travels, from the fall of Yugoslavia and historic battles in Britain, to immigration, and its perceptions.  The title, too, is sometimes a little misleading.  Whilst Hunt does make some of his journeys on foot, he often relies on public transport to get him quickly from one place to another if rumours of the wind in question being in a particular location have reached him.

Where the Wild Winds Are is both an interesting read and a gentle one.  I enjoyed Hunt’s prose, which is often quite evocative.  The author does go off on tangents from time to time, which I did not find overly compelling, but on the whole, the book is accessible and relatively easy to get into.  I would recommend it if you enjoy travel writing and are looking for something a little different to sample.

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4

The Book Trail: Travel Writing

I am beginning this edition of the Book Trail with a piece of travel writing about selected winds of Europe.  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads to generate this list.

1. Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to 33814761Provence by Nick Hunt
‘As a six-year-old child, Nick Hunt was almost carried away in a gust from the Great Storm of 1987. Almost thirty years later he set off in search of the legendary winds of Europe; from the Helm, to the Bora, the Foehn and the Mistral.  Where the Wild Winds Are is Nick Hunt’s story of following the wind from the fells of Cumbria to the Alps, the Rhone to the Adriatic coast, to explore how these unseen powers affect the countries and cultures of Europe, and to map a new type of journey across the continent.’

 

76620952. Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story by William Blacker
‘When William Blacker first crossed the snow-bound passes of northern Romania, he stumbled upon an almost medieval world. There, for many years he lived side by side with the country people, a life ruled by the slow cycle of the seasons, far away from the frantic rush of the modern world. In spring as the pear trees blossomed he ploughed with horses, in summer he scythed the hay meadows and in the freezing winters gathered wood by sleigh from the forest. From sheepfolds harried by wolves, to courting expeditions in the snow, he experienced the traditional way of life to the full, and became accepted into a community who treated him as one of their own. But Blacker was also intrigued by the Gypsies, those dark, foot-loose strangers of spell-binding allure who he saw passing through the village. Locals warned him to stay clear but he fell in love and there followed a bitter struggle. Change is now coming to rural Romania, and William Blacker’s adventures will soon be part of its history. From his early carefree days tramping the hills of Transylvania, to the book’s poignant ending, Along the Enchanted Way transports us back to a magical country world most of us thought had vanished long ago.’

 

3. Clear Waters Rising: A Mountain Walk Across Europe by Nicholas Crane 837297
‘Nicholas Crane embarks on a journey on foot through some of the remotest parts of Europe, travelling along the chain of mountains that run from the Atlantic in Spain, to Istanbul in the East. It’s not just a story about travel, but also about the human condition, about growth and fulfilment.’

 

162404814. The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos by Patrick Leigh Fermor
‘In the winter of 1933 eighteen-year-old Patrick (“Paddy”) Leigh Fermor set out to walk across Europe, starting in Holland and ending in Constantinople, a trip that took him the better part of a year. Decades later, when he was well over fifty, Leigh Fermor told the story of that life-changing journey in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, two books now celebrated as among the most vivid, absorbing, delightful, and beautifully-written travel books of all time.  The Broken Road is the long and avidly awaited account of the final leg of his youthful adventure that Leigh Fermor promised but was unable to finish before his death in 2011. Assembled from Leigh Fermor’s manuscripts by his prize-winning biographer Artemis Cooper and the travel writer Colin Thubron, this is perhaps the most personal of all Leigh Fermor’s books, catching up with young Paddy in the fall of 1934 and following him through Bulgaria and Rumania to the coast of the Black Sea. Days and nights on the road, spectacular landscapes and uncanny cities, friendships lost and found, leading the high life in Bucharest or camping out with fishermen and shepherds: in the The Broken Road such incidents and escapades are described with all the linguistic bravura, odd and astonishing learning, and overflowing exuberance that Leigh Fermor is famous for, but also with a melancholy awareness of the passage of time, especially when he meditates on the  scarred history of the Balkans or on his troubled relations with his father. The book ends, perfectly, with Paddy’s diary from the winter of 1934, when he had reached Greece, the country he would fall in love with and fight for: across the space of three quarters of century we can still hear the ringing voice of an irrepressible young man embarking on a life of adventure.’

 

5. The Crossing Place: A Journey Among the Armenians by Philip Marsden 1117853
After centuries of prominence as a world power, Armenia has withstood every attempt during the 20th century to destroy it. With a name redolent both of dim antiquity and of a modern world and its tensions, the Armenians founded a civilization and underwent a diaspora that brought many of the great ideas of the East to Western Europe. Today, shrunk to a tenth of its former size and wracked by war with Azerbaijan and by earthquakes, its people still retain one of the world’s most fascinating and misunderstood cultures.’

 

5967786. The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier
‘In 1953, twenty-four-year old Nicolas Bouvier and his artist friend Thierry Vernet set out to make their way overland from their native Geneva to the Khyber Pass. They had money to last them a few months and a Fiat to take them where they were going, but above all they were equipped with the certainty that by hook or by crook they would reach their destination, and that there would be unanticipated adventures, curious companionship, and sudden illumination along the way. They were not disappointed, and neither will be readers of this luminous travel book fashioned from Bouvier’s journals. The two friends support themselves by writing and painting in Istanbul; are spellbound by the brilliance of winter in Tabriz; take a side trip to rebellious Kurdistan; and find ever more ingenious ways to keep their increasingly battered vehicle on the road as they head to Afghanistan. Along the way, they spend wild nights listening to Gypsy musicians, trading poetry with tramps, and entertaining their companions with song and an accordion.’

 

7. Original Letters from India by Eliza Fay 6827029
‘Eliza Fay’s origins are obscure; she was not beautiful, rich, or outlandishly accomplished. Yet the letters she wrote from her 1779 voyage across the globe captivated E. M. Forster, who arranged for their British publication in 1925. The letters have been delighting readers ever since with their truth-is-stranger-than-fiction twists and turns, their earthy humor, and their depiction of an indomitable woman. When the intrepid Mrs. Fay departed from Dover more than two hundred years ago, she embarked on a grueling twelve-month journey through much of Europe, up the Nile, over the deserts of Egypt, and finally across the ocean to India. Along the way her party encountered wars, territorial disputes, brigands, and even imprisonment.  Fay was a contemporary of Jane Austen, but her adventures are worthy of a novel by Daniel Defoe. These letters—unfiltered, forthright, and often hilarious—bring the perils and excitements of an earlier age to life.’

 

4712398. Letters from Russia by Astolphe de Custine
‘The Marquis de Custine’s record of his trip to Russia in 1839 is a brilliantly perceptive, even prophetic, account of one of the world’s most fascinating and troubled countries. It is also a wonderful piece of travel writing. Custine, who met with people in all walks of life, including the Czar himself, offers vivid descriptions of St. Petersburg and Moscow, of life at court and on the street, and of the impoverished Russian countryside. But together with a wealth of sharply delineated incident and detail, Custine’s great work also presents an indelible picture–roundly denounced by both Czarist and Communist regimes–of a country crushed by despotism and “intoxicated with slavery.”‘

 

 

Which of these books have you read?  Do any of them pique your interest?

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1

‘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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0

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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