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‘The Shortest History of Germany’ by James Hawes *

Whilst in Munich with my boyfriend in February of last year, I mentioned that I’d love to learn more about German history. I have a sound grasp of it from the Weimar Republic up until the fall of the Berlin Wall, and have studied the period between 1914 and 1945 intensively, but I knew very little about earlier eras. James Hawes’ The Shortest History of Germany therefore sounded as though it would be perfect to fill in those gaps.

9781910400739It rings alarm bells for me when history books do not include a bibliography or list of sources, and this omits both entirely. There are no footnotes to denote where a quote has been taken from, and sometimes things are quoted – in italics! – in the main body of text which do not include even the reference of the author’s name. Had I noticed this before purchasing The Shortest History of Germany, it would have gone straight back onto the shelf.

The placing of text, maps, and diagrams here is so awkward, and makes for an unpleasant reading experience. Every pictorial source has been placed into the main body of text, sometimes randomly and without commentary, and therefore some of the text has been rendered into a column. I really did not enjoy the format, and think it would been easier to read, and more accessible, had all of the non-textual sources been grouped together on glossy paper, something most other history books include as a matter of course. This is not my only qualm in this respect, because many of these sources were poor in quality, and therefore the text was blurred. Most of them added very little to the book.

The way in which the quotes were not embedded in the main body of text, but appeared randomly in greyscale boxes – again, with barely a source to denote where they had been found – was annoying and unnecessary. I did not enjoy Hawes’ writing style at all, and did not appreciate the constant references which he tried to draw between particular elements of German history and the present day. This made it feel even fluffier than a history book with no appendix or bibliography already feels.

Whilst The Shortest History of Germany has a relatively linear structure, the way in which it has been partitioned into sections is odd. Hawes’ commentary felt as though it was all over the place due to the way in which what he includes here has both been set out and handled. I did read it all the way through, but only because it is such a short book; on reflection, I wish I hadn’t bothered. The book, as one might expect, is incredibly brief, and not at all comprehensive. Far more attention was focused upon the twentieth-century than anything else, and whilst I can understand this to a point, it made the whole feel highly uneven. It also became far more biased as time went on, and his tone felt patronising at points.

I’d like to say that I learnt a lot from this book, but as there is no concrete evidence to show what Hawes had read – if anything! – before compiling it, I found myself mistrustful. If it had been submitted as even an undergraduate thesis, I doubt it would have received a very good mark, with the unnecessary omission of the bibliography, and its quite clumsy writing at times. It feels almost as though Hawes has chosen to include so many charts, graphs, maps, and newspaper clippings – many of which are barely legible – in order to detract from his often skewed perspectives and cursory mentions of really rather important things.

There are many short books which I have read that effectively give the history of a particular topic in succinct and immersive ways, and which also include a comprehensive list of sources for further reading. The omission of such an important thing here was a mistake. In consequence, I will never read anything of Hawes’ again, as I am unsure whether I can trust what he includes.

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‘Avenging Angels: Soviet Women Snipers on the Eastern Front (1941-45)’ by Lyuba Vinogradova ***

As anyone who knows me only vaguely will be aware, I am absolutely fascinated by anything to do with Russia, and am particularly keen on Russian history.  I was therefore most intrigued by Lyuba Vinogradova’s Avenging Angels, which features many different accounts of women who worked as snipers for the Russian Army during the Second World War.  The book has been translated from its original Russian by Arch Tait, and features an introduction written by Anna Reid.  First published in 2017, Avenging Angels is the author’s third book.  It is supposed to act as a companion volume to Vinogradova’s Defending the Motherland: The Soviet Women Who Fought Hitler’s Aces, but I do not feel as though reading one before the other is necessary; this book does not even reference the author’s previous work.

9780857051998The Irish Independent calls the book ‘a powerful and moving account of women rising up to take arms, free their country – and, paradoxically, assert their common humanity.’  The Times believes it to be ‘well-written, engaging and enlightening’.  Certainly, the existence of such a tome is invaluable, reflecting as it does the huge war effort which the Soviet Union made during the 1940s.  In her introduction, Reid cites: ‘The Soviet Union sent more women into combat during the Second World War than any other nation before or since.’

The women who were trained as snipers ‘came from every corner of the U.S.S.R. – factory workers, domestic servants, teachers and clerks, and few were older than twenty.  With their country on its knees, and millions of its mean already dead, grievously wounded or in captivity, from 1942 onwards thousands of Soviet women were trained as snipers.’  Indeed, the estimated figures of the numbers of Soviet women who worked in some capacity for the war effort are astonishing, ranging between 579,000-800,000 serving in the Red Army, and rising to over a million when one considers female partisans, volunteers, and civilian militias.  Many women began by taking jobs in factories, or in the realm of civil defence.  After the ‘full-scale conscription of women into the military’ began in March 1942, women became ‘fully integrated into all services.’  Those who chose to bear arms were a ‘substantial minority’, writes Reid.

Many countries were sceptical about the women’s role in the war effort, but in Russia, a positive consequence of Communist rule was that everyone was, essentially, viewed as equals.  Vinogradova writes: ‘… it did not see strange to anyone that an extensive mobilisation of women for the army should take place.’  Russia’s women snipers were so numerous that they formed many platoons, consisting of around thirty individuals each.  They were subsequently sent to ‘accompany regular units’ on the battlefield.

Here, the focus of the book is on the ‘interviews with women who took on some of the war’s most high-profile combat roles – as fighter and bomber pilots, and as snipers.’  Vinogradova assert that it is not her attention ‘to assess their contribution to the war effort, nor to Soviet gender politics, but to capture their individual stories, the particular lived experiences that are left out of conventional’ history writing about wartime.  She goes on to say of the women she interviewed: ‘My heart went out to them, I pitied them in their old age and infirmity, but all the while I was listening out for an answer to one particular question: were they tormented by the thought of the lives they had taken?’  As well as the interviews which she herself conducts, Vinogradova also includes fragments of letters and diaries, which add depth to the whole.

Vinogradova discusses at points how Russia was viewed by the wider world during the Second World War, which I found fascinating.  She tells us: ‘Russia, which until very recently had been considered a rogue state, a secretive, backward, aggressive colossus that had made a pact with the Germans and attacked neighbouring countries in order to seize territory, was now being viewed quite differently.  It was a land desperately fighting a powerful and ruthless aggressor…  Russia was on everybody’s mind and many families identified closely with the victories of the Red Army.’

The stories of so many women have been factored into Avenging Angels.  Sadly, whilst some are rather in-depth studies of what the entire war was like for a particular woman, others are mentioned only once, or take up just one or two paragraphs.  This created a feeling of imbalance in the book.  Clearly though, the author is both passionate and understanding toward them, and whilst she occasionally poses questions about the effects which war, and seeing friends and comrades killed, must have had on the young women, she never appears judgemental of their choices.

I found parts of Avenging Angels fascinating, particularly with regard to the rigorous training which Vinogradova details: ‘In the barracks there was theory, which included ballistics and the characteristics of their equipment.  The girls spent a lot of tim outdoors, whatever the weather.  They were taught to dig different types of foxholes, to camouflage themselves and sit for long periods (as they might ahead of an ambush), to navigate terrain and crawl…  There were lessons in the additional skills needed for sniping: observation and the ability to commit the details of the landscape around them to memory, sharpness of vision and keeping one’s hands steady.  They were also taught unarmed combat techniques and how to throw a hand grenade.’

Of course, inevitable comparisons will be drawn between Vinogradova’s book and The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich.  I read Alexievich’s quite masterful work several months before picking up Vinogradova’s, and must say that I enjoyed it far more.  I felt that Alexievich’s work was better structured and more linear in its approach, which made a real difference in the reading experience.

I found Avenging Angels rather muddled at times; individuals were focused upon in one paragraph, and then Vinogradova switched very quickly to giving a barrage of facts about the general state of the war, only to come back to the individual again a while later.  This approach meant that reading Avenging Angels was a little jarring.  I also do not feel as though the introduction added anything to the volume.  Reid seemed to repeat chunks of what was in Vinogradova’s narrative, sometimes quoting figures and phrases verbatim.

I feel as though Avenging Angels would have been far more successful had it been set out in a different way, perhaps using each woman as a kind of case study, where everything about them could have been set out in one place.  This would have made it far less confusing, particularly as Vinogradova has a habit of referring to a woman she has mentioned once or twice by only her first name later on in the book.  The sheer number of women included here is staggering; it perhaps might have been better had Vinogradova paid attention to just a handful of them instead.  Another qualm is the quite odd way in which the author often introduces the woman in question; she almost always begins with the ‘good and bad’ points of a woman’s physical appearance, which, of course, has no bearing on her experience or ability as a sniper, and thus seemed rather redundant.

As I was reading, I was constantly aware, too, that Avenging Angels is a translated book; some of the phrasing is odd, or clumsy.  There are also occasional slips from the past to the present tense, which added to this.  My feeling is that the translator could have done more in order to make the work a more fluid, and therefore less confusing, piece.

It took a while, certainly, for me to get used to what felt like quite a haphazard approach in places, but I did find that it became a more immersive book as I continued to read.  To conclude, Avenging Angels is a fascinating and very worthy research topic, but it has been flawed in its execution.  Its epilogue also ends very abruptly, and seems to cut off with no real conclusion.  This made it feel somewhat as though the book had been rushed, which was a real shame, and which did, along with the other elements which I have pointed out in my review, dull my enjoyment levels.

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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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‘The Unwomanly Face of War’ by Svetlana Alexievich ****

Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘classic oral history’ The Unwomanly Face of War has recently been released in its first English version, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  I was so excited to pick up a copy, fascinated as I am by Russian history and the Second World War, both of which Alexievich’s work encompasses.

During the Second World War, ‘about a million women fought in the Soviet army,’ Alexievich writes in her introduction.  ‘They mastered all military specialties, including the most “masculine” ones.  A linguistic problem even emerged: no feminine gender had existed till then for the words “tank driver,” “infantryman,” “machine gunner,” because women had never done that work.  The feminine forms were born there, in the war’.  Belarusian Alexievich then goes on to discuss her experiences growing up just after the war in Ukraine, when tragedy affected everyone: ‘We didn’t know a world without war; the world of war was the only one familiar to us, and the people of war were the only people we knew.’

Alexievich, 9780141983523an investigative journalist, wanted to write an account about women, and of their experiences in conflict.  Her reasoning and justification for writing The Unwomanly Face of War are strong.  She saw the existing reportage of wartime accounts flawed, due to their masculine leanings.  She writes: ‘There have been a thousand wars – small and big, known and unknown.  And still more has been written about them.  But… it was men writing about men – that much was clear at once.  Everything we know about war we know with “a man’s voice.”‘  She goes on to exemplify the highly varied experiences of women, and their often far more emotive accounts.  ‘”Women’s” war,’ she points out, ‘has its own colors, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings.  Its own words.  There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.’

It was markedly important for Alexievich to speak to as many women as she could, and in consequence, she is able to share ‘stories of women’s experiences in World War II on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories.’  To collect the testimonies, she took ‘dozens of trips all over the country, hundreds of recorded cassettes, thousands of yards of tape.  Five hundred meetings, after which I stopped counting; faces left in my memory, only voices remained.  A chorus resounds in my memory.  An enormous chorus; sometimes the words almost cannot be heard, only the weeping.’  Accounts came from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.  She interviewed snipers, drivers, traffic controllers, liaison officers, nurses, paramedics, mechanics, telephone operators, pilots, and partisans, to create her multilayered portrait of women in war.

Alexievich is aware of the flaws to be found in any project of this kind, primarily the validity of what she is being told, as there is no way to verify individual accounts.  She says, ‘but the narrators are not only witnesses – least of all are they witnesses, they are actors and makers.  It is impossible to go right up to reality.  Between us and reality are our feelings.’  Her aim here is to portray the ‘sickening’ futility of war, and its far-reaching effects: ‘I write not about war, but about human beings in war.  I write not the history of a war, but the history of feelings.  I am a historian of the soul.’

The Unwomanly Face of War, as far as it can be judged to be so, feels candid.  Both the accounts which have been transposed, and Muller’s intelligent and measured commentary, are expressive and immersive.  Whilst the accounts themselves are sometimes very matter-of-fact, and verge upon the simplistic with regard to their language, they are often horrific and difficult to read.  The Unwomanly Face of War is such an important historical document, touching and tender.  Alexievich has included fragments of so many stories which deserve to be told.

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Books for Pride

I am a little late in creating this post, but thought it would be a nice way to mark Pride, which is occurring worldwide during the month of June.  I have put together a list of ten books with LGBTQIA protagonists or themes, some of which I have read, and some of which are on my to-read list.

317062591. Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day by Peter Ackroyd
In Queer City Peter Ackroyd looks at London in a whole new way – through the history and experiences of its gay population.  In Roman Londinium the city was dotted with lupanaria (‘wolf dens’ or public pleasure houses), fornices (brothels) and thermiae (hot baths). Then came the Emperor Constantine, with his bishops, monks and missionaries. And so began an endless loop of alternating permissiveness and censure.  Ackroyd takes us right into the hidden history of the city; from the notorious Normans to the frenzy of executions for sodomy in the early nineteenth century. He journeys through the coffee bars of sixties Soho to Gay Liberation, disco music and the horror of AIDS.  Today, we live in an era of openness and tolerance and Queer London has become part of the new norm. Ackroyd tells us the hidden story of how it got there, celebrating its diversity, thrills and energy on the one hand; but reminding us of its very real terrors, dangers and risks on the other.
2. Transgender History by Susan Stryker
‘Covering American transgender history from the mid-twentieth century to today, Transgender History takes a chronological approach to the subject of transgender history, with each chapter covering major movements, writings, and events. Chapters cover the transsexual and transvestite communities in the years following World War II; trans radicalism and social change, which spanned from 1966 with the publication of The Transsexual Phenomenon, and lasted through the early 1970s; the mid-’70s to 1990-the era of identity politics and the changes witnessed in trans circles through these years; and the gender issues witnessed through the ’90s and ’00s.  Transgender History includes informative sidebars highlighting quotes from major texts and speeches in transgender history and brief biographies of key players, plus excerpts from transgender memoirs and discussion of treatments of transgenderism in popular culture.
3. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood 16059558
When A Single Man was originally published, it shocked many by its frank, sympathetic, and moving portrayal of a gay man in midlife. George, the protagonist, is adjusting to life on his own after the sudden death of his partner, determined to persist in the routines of his daily life. An Englishman and a professor living in suburban Southern California, he is an outsider in every way, and his internal reflections and interactions with others reveal a man who loves being alive despite everyday injustices and loneliness. Wry, suddenly manic, constantly funny, surprisingly sad, this novel catches the texture of life itself.
4. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
Call Me by Your Name is the story of a sudden and powerful romance that blossoms between an adolescent boy and a summer guest at his parents’ cliff-side mansion on the Italian Riviera. Unprepared for the consequences of their attraction, at first each feigns indifference. But during the restless summer weeks that follow, unrelenting buried currents of obsession and fear, fascination and desire, intensify their passion as they test the charged ground between them. What grows from the depths of their spirits is a romance of scarcely six weeks’ duration and an experience that marks them for a lifetime. For what the two discover on the Riviera and during a sultry evening in Rome is the one thing both already fear they may never truly find again: total intimacy.  The psychological maneuvers that accompany attraction have seldom been more shrewdly captured than in André Aciman’s frank, unsentimental, heartrending elegy to human passion. Call Me by Your Name is clear-eyed, bare-knuckled, and ultimately unforgettable.
325612375. Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? by Heath Fogg Davis
Beyond Trans pushes the conversation on gender identity to its limits: questioning the need for gender categories in the first place. Whether on birth certificates or college admissions applications or on bathroom doors, why do we need to mark people and places with sex categories? Do they serve a real purpose or are these places and forms just mechanisms of exclusion? Heath Fogg Davis offers an impassioned call to rethink the usefulness of dividing the world into not just Male and Female categories but even additional categories of Transgender and gender fluid. Davis, himself a transgender man, explores the underlying gender-enforcing policies and customs in American life that have led to transgender bathroom bills, college admissions controversies, and more, arguing that it is necessary for our society to take real steps to challenge the assumption that gender matters.  He examines four areas where we need to re-think our sex-classification systems: sex-marked identity documents such as birth certificates, driver’s licenses and passports; sex-segregated public restrooms; single-sex colleges; and sex-segregated sports. Speaking from his own experience and drawing upon major cases of sex discrimination in the news and in the courts, Davis presents a persuasive case for challenging how individuals are classified according to sex and offers concrete recommendations for alleviating sex identity discrimination and sex-based disadvantage.  For anyone in search of pragmatic ways to make our world more inclusive, Davis’ recommendations provide much-needed practical guidance about how to work through this complex issue. A provocative call to action, Beyond Trans pushes us to think how we can work to make America truly inclusive of all people.
6. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.  But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.  Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship — one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to ‘fix’ her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self — even if she’s not exactly sure who that is.  The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules.
7. Unbecoming by Jenny Downham 25582543
Three women – three secrets – one heart-stopping story. Katie, seventeen, in love with someone whose identity she can’t reveal. Her mother Caroline, uptight, worn out and about to find the past catching up with her. Katie’s grandmother, Mary, back with the family after years of mysterious absence and ‘capable of anything’, despite suffering from Alzheimers. As Katie cares for an elderly woman who brings daily chaos to her life, she finds herself drawn to her. Rules get broken as allegiances shift. Is Mary contagious? Is ‘badness’ genetic? In confronting the past, Katie is forced to seize the present. As Mary slowly unravels and family secrets are revealed, Katie learns to live and finally dares to love. Funny, sad, honest and wise, Unbecoming is a celebration of life, and learning to honour your own stories.
8. Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Ocean Vuong’s first full-length collection aims straight for the perennial “big”—and very human—subjects of romance, family, memory, grief, war, and melancholia. None of these he allows to overwhelm his spirit or his poems, which demonstrate, through breath and cadence and unrepentant enthrallment, that a gentle palm on a chest can calm the fiercest hungers.
63446649. Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki
Heartbreakingly funny, moving and vibrantly drawn, Skim is an extraordinary book–a smart and sensitive graphic novel of the highest literary and artistic quality, by and about young women.  “Skim” is Kimberly Keiko Cameron, a not-slim, would-be Wiccan goth who goes to a private girls’ school. When Skim’s classmate Katie Matthews is dumped by her boyfriend, who then kills himself, the entire school goes into mourning overdrive. As concerned guidance counselors provide lectures on the “cycle of grief,” and the popular clique starts a new club (Girls Celebrate Life!) to bolster school spirit, Skim sinks into an ever-deepening depression.   And falling in love only makes things worse…  Suicide, depression, love, being gay or not, crushes, cliques, and finding a way to be your own fully human self–are all explored in this brilliant collaboration by cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. An edgy, keenly observed and poignant glimpse into the heartache of being young.
10. We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend, Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit, and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which are your favourites with LGBTQIA themes or characters?  Have you read anything specifically to celebrate Pride this month?

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One From the Archive: ‘How to be a Victorian’ by Ruth Goodman ****

First published in 2013.

9780670921362In her first venture as a solo author, Ruth Goodman has attempted to present ‘a radical new approach to history’ by showing the ‘overlapping worlds of health, sex, fashion, food, school, work and play’. She states in her introduction that she wanted to ‘explore a more intimate, personal and physical sort of history… one that celebrates the ordinary and charts the lives of the common man, woman and child as they interact with the practicalities of their world’. Goodman herself is an expert in this field, and has experienced life on a Victorian farm whilst taking part in an incredibly interesting BBC documentary.

Goodman has used the timeframe of a day in which to set out her information, beginning with the waking up routine of your average Victorian, and following them until they retire to bed at nighttime. In this way, she has given How to be a Victorian an almost circular feel, which is a refreshing technique in terms of history books. Throughout, she has made use of primary and secondary sources, which have been taken from a vast amalgam of documents and records – diaries, letters, autobiographies, magazines and other printed matter, all of which ‘sought to inform and shape public opinion’.

Throughout, Goodman writes intelligently about a wealth of little known details about life in Victorian Britain. Rather than merely including the commonplace information which the vast majority of us know, the author has dug deeper, unearthing unusual routines which were all the rage during Victorian times. These include the profession of a ‘knocker-upper’, who was employed as a human alarm clock by his clients. He would take a long cane and lantern out with him in the early hours, which he would rap on the appropriate windows, and would then charge a penny a month for the privilege. Goodman explores elements of life such as the rug making techniques of the day, clothing and corsetry, recommended haircare, the dangers of factory work, and how often to bathe a baby – far more often than the average adult would partake, that’s for sure. A section in the middle of the book is devoted to a glossy spread of photographs and illustrations, and many black and white images have also been included within the main body of text. These are rather useful additions, particularly with regard to the advertisements which Goodman writes about.

How to be a Victorian is best read in small sections, as it is filled with a lot of information, much which is likely to be lost by the reader if the entirety of the text is taken in at once. Each chapter has been split into relatively short sections, which allows it to be picked up and put down at will. Goodman is clearly incredibly enthusiastic of her subject, and the fact that she has first-hand experience at using many of the techniques and routines which she describes sets her apart from a lot of historians. Here, she has presented a far-reaching account of Victorian life throughout the entirety of the monarch’s reign, and in consequence, she has created a marvellous guide for anyone at all interested in the period.

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2018 Travel: Books Set in Germany

Germany is the third country which I have been lucky enough to visit so far this year.  My boyfriend and I travelled to beautiful Munich at the end of February.  Here are seven books set in Germany which I have loved, and would highly recommend.
1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005) 893136
HERE IS A SMALL FACT:  YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.  1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.  Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with her foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.  SOME MORE IMPORTANT INFORMATION:  THIS NOVEL IS NARRATED BY DEATH.  It’s a small story, about: a girl, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery.  ANOTHER THING YOU SHOULD KNOW: DEATH WILL VISIT THE BOOK THIEF THREE TIMES.
2. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (1995)
Hailed for its coiled eroticism and the moral claims it makes upon the reader, this mesmerizing novel is a story of love and secrets, horror and compassion, unfolding against the haunted landscape of postwar Germany.  When he falls ill on his way home from school, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover—then she inexplicably disappears. When Michael next sees her, he is a young law student, and she is on trial for a hideous crime. As he watches her refuse to defend her innocence, Michael gradually realizes that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.
494653. Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum (2004)
For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer, the Obersturmfuhrer of Buchenwald.  Driven by the guilt of her heritage, Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the dramatic and heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life.  Combining a passionate, doomed love story, a vivid evocation of life during the war, and a poignant mother/daughter drama, Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.
4. Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (2008)
A house on the forested bank of a Brandenburg lake outside Berlin (once belonging to Erpenbeck’s grandparents) is the focus of this compact, beautiful novel. Encompassing over one hundred years of German history, from the nineteenth century to the Weimar Republic, from World War II to the Socialist German Democratic Republic, and finally reunification and its aftermath, Visitation offers the life stories of twelve individuals who seek to make their home in this one magical little house. The novel breaks into the everyday life of the house and shimmers through it, while relating the passions and fates of its inhabitants. Elegant and poetic, Visitation forms a literary mosaic of the last century, tearing open wounds and offering moments of reconciliation, with its drama and its exquisite evocation of a landscape no political upheaval can truly change.
5. A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City by Anonymous (1953) 12238919
For eight weeks in 1945, as Berlin fell to the Russian army, a young woman kept a daily record of life in her apartment building and among its residents. The anonymous author depicts her fellow Berliners in all their humanity, as well as their cravenness, corrupted first by hunger and then by the Russians. A Woman in Berlin tells of the complex relationship between civilians and an occupying army and the shameful indignities to which women in a conquered city are always subject–the mass rape suffered by all, regardless of age or infirmity.
6. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald (1995)
‘From the Booker Prize-winning author of Offshore comes this unusual romance between the poet Novalis and his fiancee Sophie, newly introduced by Candia McWilliam.The year is 1794 and Fritz, passionate, idealistic and brilliant, is seeking his father’s permission to announce his engagement to his heart’s desire: twelve-year-old Sophie. His astounded family and friends are amused and disturbed by his betrothal. What can he be thinking?Tracing the dramatic early years of the young German who was to become the great romantic poet and philosopher Novalis, The Blue Flower is a masterpiece of invention, evoking the past with a reality that we can almost feel.’
95455457. The End: Germany 1944-1945 by Ian Kershaw (2011)
Ian Kershaw’s The End is a gripping, revelatory account of the final months of the Nazi war machine, from the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 to the German surrender in May 1945.  In almost every major war there comes a point where defeat looms for one side and its rulers cut a deal with the victors, if only in an attempt to save their own skins. In Hitler’s Germany, nothing of this kind happened: in the end the regime had to be stamped out town by town with an almost unprecedented level of brutality.  Just what made Germany keep on fighting? Why did its rulers not cut a deal to save their own skins?  And why did ordinary people continue to obey the Fuhrer’s suicidal orders, with countless Germans executing their own countrymen for desertion or defeatism?

 

Have you read any of these?  Have any made their way onto your to-read list?

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