6

The TED Reading List

I recently came across this very interesting reading list, published by TED in 2018.  It is wonderfully varied, and certainly contains quite a few niche genres which I certainly have not read before.  Although the list specifies that these choices are aimed at summer reading, I thought that I would look through it and pick out ten titles which I would like to get to over the next year or two.

 

1. A Lucky Man: Stories by Jamel Brinkley 412vb-c3-l._sx336_bo1204203200_
‘In the nine expansive, searching stories of A Lucky Man, fathers and sons attempt to salvage relationships with friends and family members and confront mistakes made in the past. An imaginative young boy from the Bronx goes swimming with his group from day camp at a backyard pool in the suburbs, and faces the effects of power and privilege in ways he can barely grasp. A teen intent on proving himself a man through the all-night revel of J’Ouvert can’t help but look out for his impressionable younger brother. A pair of college boys on the prowl follow two girls home from a party and have to own the uncomfortable truth of their desires. And at a capoeira conference, two brothers grapple with how to tell the story of their family, caught in the dance of their painful, fractured history.  Jamel Brinkley’s stories, in a debut that announces the arrival of a significant new voice, reflect the tenderness and vulnerability of black men and boys whose hopes sometimes betray them, especially in a world shaped by race, gender, and class–where luck may be the greatest fiction of all.’

 

51xf8lggsll2. Sophie’s Misfortunes by Comtesse de Ségur
Les Malheur de Sophie (Sophie’s Misfortunes) describes the life of Sophie before the events of Les Petites Filles Modèles, when she still lives with her parents in the French countryside. She is a lively, adventurous child who keeps getting into mischief with the critical complicity of her cousin Paul. Each chapter, with a few exceptions, follow a similar pattern: Sophie does something bad or stupid; she is found out or confesses her mischief; and she gets punished –or not – by her mother Mme de Réan, who uses each incident to teach a moral lesson.’

 

3. Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World by Eileen McNamara 41gx2bnlk4el._sx327_bo1204203200_
‘A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist examines the life and times of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, arguing she left behind the Kennedy family’s most profound political legacy.  While Joe Kennedy was grooming his sons for the White House and the Senate, his Stanford-educated daughter Eunice was tapping her father’s fortune and her brothers’ political power to engineer one of the great civil rights movements of our time on behalf of millions of children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Now, in Eunice, Pulitzer Prize winner Eileen McNamara finally brings Eunice Kennedy Shriver out from her brothers’ shadow to show an officious, cigar-smoking, indefatigable woman of unladylike determination and deep compassion born of rage: at the medical establishment that had no answers for her sister Rosemary; at the revered but dismissive father whose vision for his family did not extend beyond his sons; and at the government that failed to deliver on America’s promise of equality.  Granted access to never-before-seen private papers—from the scrapbooks Eunice kept as a schoolgirl in prewar London to her thoughts on motherhood and feminism—McNamara paints a vivid portrait of a woman both ahead of her time and out of step with it: the visionary founder of the Special Olympics, a devout Catholic in a secular age, and a formidable woman whose impact on American society was longer lasting than that of any of the Kennedy men.’

 

41ipnhudval._sx326_bo1204203200_4. The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
‘Poet and essayist Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer–one small spot. Within a year, she received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal.  How does a dying person learn to live each day “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty? How does a young mother and wife prepare her two young children and adored husband for a loss that will shape the rest of their lives? How do we want to be remembered?  Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, Nina asks: What makes a meaningful life when one has limited time? “Profound and poignant” (O, The Oprah Magazine), The Bright Hour is about how to make the most of all the days, even the painful ones. It’s about the way literature, especially Nina’s direct ancestor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and her other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer.’

 

5. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown 51uu9frdkhl._sx324_bo1204203200_
‘For readers of Unbroken, out of the depths of the Depression comes an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times–the improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant.  It was an unlikely quest from the start. With a team composed of the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the University of Washington’s eight-oar crew team was never expected to defeat the elite teams of the East Coast and Great Britain, yet they did, going on to shock the world by defeating the German team rowing for Adolf Hitler. The emotional heart of the tale lies with Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not only to regain his shattered self-regard but also to find a real place for himself in the world. Drawing on the boys’ own journals and vivid memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, Brown has created an unforgettable portrait of an era, a celebration of a remarkable achievement, and a chronicle of one extraordinary young man’s personal quest.’

 

51epm2wuoil._sx327_bo1204203200_6. The Overstory by Richard Powers
‘An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These four, and five other strangers-each summoned in different ways by trees-are brought together in a last and violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. In his twelfth novel, National Book Award winner Richard Powers delivers a sweeping, impassioned novel of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of-and paean to-the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, exploring the essential conflict on this planet: the one taking place between humans and nonhumans. There is a world alongside ours-vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe. The Overstory is a book for all readers who despair of humanity’s self-imposed separation from the rest of creation and who hope for the transformative, regenerating possibility of a homecoming. If the trees of this earth could speak, what would they tell us? “Listen. There’s something you need to hear.”‘

 

7. No Pity by Joe Shapiro 41gldpjfgsl._sx321_bo1204203200_
‘In No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement, Joe Shapiro of U.S. News & World Report tells of a political awakening few nondisabled Americans have even imagined. There are over 43 million disabled people in this country alone; for decades most of them have been thought incapable of working, caring for themselves, or contributing to society. But during the last twenty-live years, they, along with their parents and families, have begun to recognize that paraplegia, retardation, deafness, blindness, AIDS, autism, or any of the hundreds of other chronic illnesses and disabilities that differentiate them from the able-bodied are not tragic. The real tragedy is prejudice, our society’s and the medical establishment’s refusal to recognize that the disabled person is entitled to every right and privilege America can offer. No Pity‘s chronicle of disabled people’s struggle for inclusion, from the seventeenth-century deaf communities on Martha’s Vineyard to the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992, is only part of the story. Joe Shapiro’s five years of in-depth reporting have uncovered many personal stories as well. ‘

 

8. A Kind of Mirraculus Paradise by Sandra Allen 51hyyhwsbql._sx338_bo1204203200_
‘Writer Sandra Allen did not know their uncle Bob very well. As a child, Sandy had been told Bob was “crazy,” that he had spent time in mental hospitals while growing up in Berkeley in the 60s and 70s. But Bob had lived a hermetic life in a remote part of California for longer than Sandy had been alive, and what little Sandy knew of him came from rare family reunions or odd, infrequent phone calls. Then in 2009 Bob mailed Sandy his autobiography. Typewritten in all caps, a stream of error-riddled sentences over sixty, single-spaced pages, the often-incomprehensible manuscript proclaimed to be a “true story” about being “labeled a psychotic paranoid schizophrenic,” and arrived with a plea to help him get his story out to the world.  In A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story about Schizophrenia, Sandy translates Bob’s autobiography, artfully creating a gripping coming-of-age story while sticking faithfully to the facts as he shared them. Lacing Bob’s narrative with chapters providing greater contextualization, Sandy also shares background information about their family, the culturally explosive time and place of their uncle’s formative years, and the vitally important questions surrounding schizophrenia and mental healthcare in America more broadly. The result is a heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious portrait of a young man striving for stability in his life as well as his mind, and an utterly unique lens into an experience that, to most people, remains unimaginable.’

 

9. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien 61u61td7s2bl._sx331_bo1204203200_
‘Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations–those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story. Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences. With maturity and sophistication, humor and beauty, Thien has crafted a novel that is at once intimate and grandly political, rooted in the details of life inside China yet transcendent in its universality.’

 

51ni9lnyfdl._sx325_bo1204203200_10. Sorry, Not Sorry by Haji Mohamed Dawjee
‘Why don’t white people understand that Converse tekkies are not just cool but a political statement to people of colour? Why is it that South Africans of colour don’t really ‘write what we like’? What’s the deal with people pretending to be ‘woke’? Is Islam really as antifeminist as is claimed? What does it feel like to be a brown woman in a white media corporation? And what life lessons can we learn from Bollywood movies? In Sorry, Not Sorry, Haji Mohamed Dawjee explores the often maddening experience of moving through post-apartheid South Africa as a woman of colour. In characteristically candid style, she pulls no punches when examining the social landscape: from arguing why she’d rather deal with an open racist than some liberal white people, to drawing on her own experience to convince readers that joining a cult is never a good idea. In the provocative voice that has made Mohamed Dawjee one of our country’s most talked-about columnists, she offers observations laced with acerbic wit. Sorry, Not Sorry will make readers laugh, wince, nod, introspect and argue.’

 

 

Which of these books take your fancy?  Have you read any of them?

1

‘Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland’ by Patrick Radden Keefe ****

Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, which blends together history and a particular true crime case, was the winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Writing.  I have travelled to Northern Ireland many times before, and am fascinated by the history of the country.  I had been drawn to the book for some time before I found a copy to borrow on my library’s app.

43363624._sy475_The prologue of Say Nothing begins in July 2013, in the library of Boston College, which ‘holds the most comprehensive collection of Irish political and cultural artefacts in the United States’.  Here in 2013, writes Radden Keefe, ‘two Belfast detectives arrive, and take back with them a series of secret files… [which] contained sensitive and dangerous secrets.’

Part of the focus of Say Nothing is the disappearance of thirty eight-year-old widow Jean McConville, from a small home in the notorious Divis Flats in Belfast.  She was the mother of ten children, and four more who died in infancy.  Throughout, Radden Keefe relates details of her home life, and later her case, to the societal conditions in Belfast at the time, showing that Jean’s circumstances were far from unusual: ‘But this was Belfast in 1972, where immense, unruly families were the norm, so Jean McConville wasn’t looking for any prizes, and she didn’t get any.’

Radden Keefe makes Jean’s case feel so immediate; he writes, for instance, the following about the circumstances of her disappearance: ‘But when they opened the door, a gang of people burst inside.  It happened so abruptly that none of the McConville children could say precisely how many there were – it was roughly eight people, but it could have been ten or twelve.  There were men and women.  Some had balaclavas pulled across their faces; others wore nylon stockings over their heads, which twisted their features into ghoulish masks.  At least one of them was carrying a gun.’  These people were the McConvilles’ neighbours.  They dragged Jean away, using her son Michael as a decoy, and left little trace behind them.

Michael McConville becomes the focus of one of the earlier chapters, in which Radden Keefe examines how he spent his time during the Troubles.  Michael ‘spent most of his time thinking about pigeons’, as opposed to the other children, who made danger their playground.  These children would ‘scuttle outside and crawl through the skeletons of burned-out lorries, trampoline on rusted box-spring mattresses, or hide in a stray bathtub that lay abandoned amid the rubble.’

We learn much more about Jean as the book goes on.  After her husband’s death to cancer, she, who ‘had been delicate by temperament to begin with, fell into a heavy depression’, and became a recluse.  She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, and had little support from those outside of her home.  According to Michael, his mother was ‘an overworked, depressed, psychologically fragile’ woman, who ‘spent her days cocooned in her flat, smoking cigarettes and juggling children and doing laundry by hand.’  A day before she was dragged from their flat, attest her children, she did not come home from bingo.  She had been forcibly taken to an army barracks after being ‘tied to a chair, beaten and interrogated’.

Jean’s story is, of course, heartbreaking, as is the majority of the historical and political context against which her disappearance occurred.  After she is taken, her children are left alone in the flat, having to fend for themselves: ‘They held onto one another, marooned inside the flat.  Bedtime was suspended and dishes piled up in the sink.’  Helen, the eldest McConville daughter, takes charge of her younger siblings, and receives no help whatsoever from their cruel neighbours, or the Catholic church, who were ‘unsympathetic’ to the McConvilles’ plight.  Soon, rumours began to spread about Jean’s disappearance, with some believing that she ‘had absconded of her own free will, abandoning her children to shack up with a British soldier.’  The children are eventually taken into care, where many of them are treated in appalling ways, the traumas of which profoundly affect their adult lives.

Radden Keefe’s writing pulled me in immediately.  He covers the historical and political background with impeccable control, and although the information within the book could quite easily have become dense, he makes it accessible.  The author has such a handle on complex and tumultuous periods of Northern Irish history.  Radden Keefe’s prose is informative, intelligent, and intoxicating.  He focuses on many different individuals throughout, who all have a part to play in the wider story.

Say Nothing is so much more than a true crime book; it is a social, political, classist, and geographical history.   Radden Keefe writes at length about the IRA, Sinn Fein, and tensions between Northern Ireland and the British government, and focuses on individuals who had quite a part to play during this period, such as Gerry Adams.  Of course, there is a great deal of shocking content here, some of which I found quite difficult to read.  Radden Keefe examines the myriad concerns which the wider political context fostered, all of which are intertwined with the story of Jean and her children.  Say Nothing is fascinating and incredibly thorough, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

2

‘Black Tudors: The Untold History’ by Miranda Kaufmann **

I came across Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudors: The Untold History whilst browsing my library’s online catalogue, and duly reserved it.  Whilst I studied the Tudor period in some detail at school, I have largely focused on more modern historical periods since.  However, I am always eager to learn, and was keen to read about a largely unknown-to-me element of a fascinating era.

33261026._sy475_Black Tudors is called variously, in the numerous reviews sprinkled over its cover, ‘alive with human details and warmth’, ‘a work of brilliant sleuthing’, and a book which ‘promises to change perceptions of a period at the heart of Britain’s national identity’.  These reviews served to intrigue me further.

Kaufmann has pieced together Black Tudors by using ‘long-forgotten records’ of ‘the remarkable stories of Africans who lived free in Tudor England.’  She has split her narrative into ten distinct chapters, each of which turns its focus to a particular individual – essentially, each forms a case study.  These range from trumpeter John Blanke to Anne Cobbie, a prostitute who was known widely as ‘the Tawny Moor with Soft Skin’.  Early on, Kaufmann highlights: ‘In many ways, their lives were no worse than those of the vast majority of Tudors… but this was the result of having no social standing, not of having dark skin.’  Whilst many Africans were enslaved during this era, some had their freedom, and were able to exercise it.

Each chapter begins with a page-long imagined narrative of the individual.  In the case of salvage diver Jacques Francis, for instance, who worked on the shipwreck of the Mary Rose, Kaufmann writes: ‘That was why he was here, why the King had hired his master: to salvage the expensive weaponry.  The Venetian could not dive this deep himself and so he’d found Jacques, and the other divers in his team, and brought them to this cold island to perform a miracle for the English King.’  I did not personally feel as though these sections were necessary; they added very little background, and much of what they said was repeated later on in the chapter.  Whilst I appreciated the range of professions which these individuals held, I did not learn a great deal about them, really.

In her introduction, Kaufmann notes: ‘Despite the insatiable appetite for all things Tudor, from raunchy television series to bath ducks modelled as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, the existence of the Black Tudors is little known.’  Having read Kaufmann’s book from cover to cover, I think it is fair to say that this is still a little known element of Tudor history.  Whilst more is known about some subjects than others, there is so much speculation at play – how an individual came to Britain in the first place, and the routes which this entailed; their marriage partners; what happened to them when they no longer appeared in court records…

Due to a general lack of records throughout this era, a lot of what Kaufmann writes is purely speculative.  There is little concrete information which she had to work from, and therefore much of Black Tudors could be said to be more of an imagined narrative than a work of history.  There are so many instances of ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps’ here that sometimes one wonders why Kaufmann tried to focus on the black Tudors at all.

The prose of Black Tudors is definitely accessible, but it never really felt as absorbing as I like history books to be.  I learnt some things, but nowhere near as much as I expected to when I started to read.  I did appreciate that Kaufmann continually cites the historical context of the period, but this often overshadows the individual whom she is trying to focus on; they largely get lost in the minutiae of Tudor life.  The real information which has been used in Black Tudors is often so scant that really, the book reads like a generalised history of the period.  Much of which makes up each chapter scarcely touches upon the individual in question.

Black Tudors does not achieve what it sets out to.  I completely understand that there is comparatively little by way of sources available, but the title of the book is rather misleading.  There is an admirable amount of research and subject knowledge here, but in a more generalised manner.  This history book is not what I was expecting.  Although it has a lot of good information on the Tudor population as a whole, it does not know enough about any of the individuals which it tries to focus upon; therefore, they have no way of feeling like realistic beings, who really existed.

Black Tudors ultimately feels quite muddled, and I did not really enjoy the tangents which Kaufmann often diverts to.  These make the narrative feel fractured and fragmented, and it is sometimes difficult to pick up individual threads of the stories of the individuals in consequence.  Whilst I read some parts of Black Tudors with a great deal of interest, for me as a reader, it really missed the mark.

1

‘To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace’ by Kapka Kassabova ****

Before the virus completely took over 2020, and made it almost impossible to travel without a two-week quarantine, my boyfriend and I had planned a trip to North Macedonia. We were intending to end our holiday with a wild swim at Lake Ohrid, somewhere we have wanted to visit for years. We are hoping that we will be able to embark on this trip at some point during 2021, but for now, I reached for the closest thing I could find – Kapka Kassabova’s non-fiction title To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace.

The Balkans is an area which I have travelled in relatively extensively already, but I find it fascinating to see regions which I love – as well as those which I have yet to visit – through the eyes of someone who is somehow connected to the physical place. Kassabova’s maternal grandmother grew up in the town of Ohrid, beside the lake, which lies ‘within the mountainous borderlands of North Macedonia, Albania, and Greece’. Lake Ohrid, and also Lake Prespa, which can be found relatively nearby, are located in ‘one of Eurasia’s most historically diverse areas’, and are the two oldest lakes in Europe. Ohrid and Prespa are joined by an underground river, and span these aforementioned borders.

‘By exploring on water and land the stories of poets, fishermen, and caretakers, misfits, rulers, and inheritors of war and exile,’ declares the blurb, ‘Kassabova uncovers the human history shaped by the lakes.’ Alongside her personal journey to reach her family’s roots, the author makes ‘a deeper enquiry into how geography and politics imprint themselves upon families and nations.’

For Kassabova, this region, which has housed ‘generations of my predecessors… is a realm of high altitudes and mesmeric depths, eagles and vineyards, orchards and old civilisations, a land tattooed with untold histories.’ The focus of To the Lake, as outlined in the introduction, is as follows: ‘Geography shapes history – we generally accept this as a fact. But we don’t often explore how families digest big historo-geographies, how these sculpt our inner landscape, and how we as individuals continue to influence the course of history in invisible but significant ways – because the local is inseparable from the global. I went to the Lakes to seek an understanding of such forces.’

The first chapter of To the Lake opens with Kassabova’s recollections of her maternal grandmother’s death. Her descriptions of her grandmother, Anastassia, which she goes on to reveal piece by piece, are so vibrant: ‘Surrounded by the mediocrity, conformity and mendacity that a totalitarian system thrives on, Anastassia lived with zest, speaking her mind in a society where half the population didn’t have a mind and the other half were careful to keep it to themselves.’ Her descriptions of her family particularly really stand out; she describes her mother thus, for example: ‘She always felt to me precariously attuned to life, as if born rootless, as if needing an external force to earth her.’

Some of Kassabova’s writing is undoubtedly beautiful – for instance, when she writes ‘Ohrid made you feel the weight of time, even on a peaceful evening like this, with only the screech of cicadas and the shuffle of old women in slippers’ – but there are some quite abrupt sentences and sections to be found within To the Lake. It does not feel entirely consistent at times, and Kassabova does have a tendency to jump from quite an involved history of the area to a conversation with someone who lives there, and often back again, without any delineation. This added a disjointed feel to the whole. However, the value and interest of the information which she presents was thankfully too strong for this to put me off as a reader.

To the Lake is certainly thorough; it was not a book which I felt able to read from cover to cover in one go, as it is so intricate – both in terms of the history and geography of the region, and of Kassabova’s own family. There is a great deal within the book which explores national divides throughout the lake region, as well as the religions which are practiced. Kassabova seems to focus far more upon the differences of the people whom she meets, than their similarities. There are some brief nods to fascinating Slavic folktales along the way, which I wish had been elaborated upon. Regardless, To the Lake is an important book, and an ultimately satisfying one, which I would highly recommend.

0

The Book Trail: The Non-Fiction Edition

As the starting point for this edition of The Book Trail, I have chosen a searing memoir which I read earlier this year, and which I have seen nobody else pick up – Inferno: A Memoir of Motherhood and Madness by Catherine Cho.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

 

1. Inferno: A Memoir of Motherhood and Madness by Catherine Cho 48077651
‘The riveting story of a young mother who is separated from her newborn son and husband when she’s involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward in New Jersey after a harrowing bout of postpartum psychosis.  When Catherine and her husband set off from London to introduce their newborn son to family scattered across the United States, she could not have imagined what lay in store. Before the trip’s end, she develops psychosis, a complete break from reality, which causes her to lose all sense of time and place, including what is real and not real. In desperation, her husband admits her to a nearby psychiatric hospital, where she begins the hard work of rebuilding her identity. In this unwaveringly honest, insightful, and often shocking memoir Catherine reconstructs her sense of self, starting with her childhood as the daughter of Korean immigrants, moving through a traumatic past relationship, and on to the early years of her courtship with and marriage to her husband, James. She masterfully interweaves these parts of her past with a vivid, immediate recounting of the days she spent in the ward.  The result is a powerful exploration of psychosis and motherhood, at once intensely personal, yet holding within it a universal experience – of how we love, live and understand ourselves in relation to each other.’

 

33516728._sy475_2. The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness: A Memoir by Sarah Ramey
‘The darkly funny memoir of Sarah Ramey’s years-long battle with a mysterious illness that doctors thought was all in her head–but wasn’t. A revelation and an inspiration for millions of women whose legitimate health complaints are ignored.  In her harrowing, defiant, and unforgettable memoir, Sarah Ramey recounts the decade-long saga of how a seemingly minor illness in her senior year of college turned into a prolonged and elusive condition that destroyed her health but that doctors couldn’t diagnose or treat. Worse, as they failed to cure her, they hinted that her devastating symptoms were psychological.  The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness is a memoir with a mission, to help the millions of (mostly) women who suffer from unnamed or misunderstood conditions: autoimmune illnesses like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic Lyme disease, chronic pain, and many more. Ramey’s pursuit of a diagnosis and cure for her own mysterious illness becomes a page-turning medical mystery that reveals a new understanding of today’s chronic illnesses as ecological in nature, driven by modern changes to the basic foundations of health, from the quality of our sleep, diet, and social connection to the state of our microbiomes. Her book will open eyes, change lives, and ultimately change medicine.’

 

3. Know My Name: A Memoir by Chanel Miller 50196744._sx318_sy475_
She was known to the world as Emily Doe when she stunned millions with a letter. Brock Turner had been sentenced to just six months in county jail after he was found sexually assaulting her on Stanford’s campus. Her victim impact statement was posted on BuzzFeed, where it instantly went viral–viewed by eleven million people within four days, it was translated globally and read on the floor of Congress; it inspired changes in California law and the recall of the judge in the case. Thousands wrote to say that she had given them the courage to share their own experiences of assault for the first time.  Now she reclaims her identity to tell her story of trauma, transcendence, and the power of words. It was the perfect case, in many ways–there were eyewitnesses, Turner ran away, physical evidence was immediately secured. But her struggles with isolation and shame during the aftermath and the trial reveal the oppression victims face in even the best-case scenarios. Her story illuminates a culture biased to protect perpetrators, indicts a criminal justice system designed to fail the most vulnerable, and, ultimately, shines with the courage required to move through suffering and live a full and beautiful life.  Know My Name will forever transform the way we think about sexual assault, challenging our beliefs about what is acceptable and speaking truth to the tumultuous reality of healing. It also introduces readers to an extraordinary writer, one whose words have already changed our world. Entwining pain, resilience, and humor, this memoir will stand as a modern classic.

 

436825524. How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones
Haunted and haunting, Jones’s memoir tells the story of a young, black, gay man from the South as he fights to carve out a place for himself, within his family, within his country, within his own hopes, desires, and fears. Through a series of vignettes that chart a course across the American landscape, Jones draws readers into his boyhood and adolescence—into tumultuous relationships with his mother and grandmother, into passing flings with lovers, friends and strangers. Each piece builds into a larger examination of race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief: a portrait of what we all do for one another—and to one another—as we fight to become ourselves.  Blending poetry and prose, Jones has developed a style that is equal parts sensual, beautiful, and powerful—a voice that’s by turns a river, a blues, and a nightscape set ablaze. How We Fight for Our Lives is a one of a kind memoir and a book that cements Saeed Jones as an essential writer for our time.

 

5. The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom 43347603
In 1961, Sarah M. Broom’s mother Ivory Mae bought a shotgun house in the then-promising neighborhood of New Orleans East and built her world inside of it. It was the height of the Space Race and the neighborhood was home to a major NASA plant–the postwar optimism seemed assured. Widowed, Ivory Mae remarried Sarah’s father Simon Broom; their combined family would eventually number twelve children. But after Simon died, six months after Sarah’s birth, the Yellow House would become Ivory Mae’s thirteenth and most unruly child.  A book of great ambition, Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House tells a hundred years of her family and their relationship to home in a neglected area of one of America’s most mythologized cities. This is the story of a mother’s struggle against a house’s entropy, and that of a prodigal daughter who left home only to reckon with the pull that home exerts, even after the Yellow House was wiped off the map after Hurricane Katrina. The Yellow House expands the map of New Orleans to include the stories of its lesser known natives, guided deftly by one of its native daughters, to demonstrate how enduring drives of clan, pride, and familial love resist and defy erasure. Located in the gap between the “Big Easy” of tourist guides and the New Orleans in which Broom was raised, The Yellow House is a brilliant memoir of place, class, race, the seeping rot of inequality, and the internalized shame that often follows. It is a transformative, deeply moving story from an unparalleled new voice of startling clarity, authority, and power.

 

40163119._sy475_6. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
From award-winning New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe, a stunning, intricate narrative about a notorious killing in Northern Ireland and its devastating repercussions.  In December 1972, Jean McConville, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of ten, was dragged from her Belfast home by masked intruders, her children clinging to her legs. They never saw her again. Her abduction was one of the most notorious episodes of the vicious conflict known as The Troubles. Everyone in the neighborhood knew the I.R.A. was responsible. But in a climate of fear and paranoia, no one would speak of it. In 2003, five years after an accord brought an uneasy peace to Northern Ireland, a set of human bones was discovered on a beach. McConville’s children knew it was their mother when they were told a blue safety pin was attached to the dress–with so many kids, she had always kept it handy for diapers or ripped clothes.  Patrick Radden Keefe’s mesmerizing book on the bitter conflict in Northern Ireland and its aftermath uses the McConville case as a starting point for the tale of a society wracked by a violent guerrilla war, a war whose consequences have never been reckoned with. The brutal violence seared not only people like the McConville children, but also I.R.A. members embittered by a peace that fell far short of the goal of a united Ireland, and left them wondering whether the killings they committed were not justified acts of war, but simple murders. From radical and impetuous I.R.A. terrorists such as Dolours Price, who, when she was barely out of her teens, was already planting bombs in London and targeting informers for execution, to the ferocious I.R.A. mastermind known as The Dark, to the spy games and dirty schemes of the British Army, to Gerry Adams, who negotiated the peace but betrayed his hardcore comrades by denying his I.R.A. past–Say Nothing conjures a world of passion, betrayal, vengeance, and anguish.

 

7. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear 40538681Disaster by Adam Higginbotham
‘The definitive, dramatic untold story of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, based on original reporting and new archival research.  April 25, 1986, in Chernobyl, was a turning point in world history. The disaster not only changed the world’s perception of nuclear power and the science that spawned it, but also our understanding of the planet’s delicate ecology. With the images of the abandoned homes and playgrounds beyond the barbed wire of the 30-kilometer Exclusion Zone, the rusting graveyards of contaminated trucks and helicopters, the farmland lashed with black rain, the event fixed for all time the notion of radiation as an invisible killer.  Chernobyl was also a key event in the destruction of the Soviet Union, and, with it, the United States’ victory in the Cold War. For Moscow, it was a political and financial catastrophe as much as an environmental and scientific one. With a total cost of 18 billion rubles—at the time equivalent to $18 billion—Chernobyl bankrupted an already teetering economy and revealed to its population a state built upon a pillar of lies.  The full story of the events that started that night in the control room of Reactor No.4 of the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant has never been told—until now. Through two decades of reporting, new archival information, and firsthand interviews with witnesses, journalist Adam Higginbotham tells the full dramatic story, including Alexander Akimov and Anatoli Dyatlov, who represented the best and worst of Soviet life; denizens of a vanished world of secret policemen, internal passports, food lines, and heroic self-sacrifice for the Motherland. Midnight in Chernobyl, award-worthy nonfiction that reads like sci-fi, shows not only the final epic struggle of a dying empire but also the story of individual heroism and desperate, ingenious technical improvisation joining forces against a new kind of enemy.

 

44526650._sy475_8. Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come by Richard Preston
The 2013-2014 Ebola epidemic was the deadliest ever–but the outbreaks continue. Now comes a gripping account of the doctors and scientists fighting to protect us, an urgent wake-up call about the future of emerging viruses–from the #1 bestselling author of The Hot Zone, soon to be a National Geographic original miniseries.  This time, Ebola started with a two-year-old child who likely had contact with a wild creature and whose entire family quickly fell ill and died. The ensuing global drama activated health professionals in North America, Europe, and Africa in a desperate race against time to contain the viral wildfire. By the end–as the virus mutated into its deadliest form, and spread farther and faster than ever before–30,000 people would be infected, and the dead would be spread across eight countries on three continents.  In this taut and suspenseful medical drama, Richard Preston deeply chronicles the outbreak, in which we saw for the first time the specter of Ebola jumping continents, crossing the Atlantic, and infecting people in America. Rich in characters and conflict–physical, emotional, and ethical–Crisis in the Red Zone is an immersion in one of the great public health calamities of our time.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which titles pique your interest?

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‘Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s’ by Anne Sebba *****

As readers of my reviews will already know, books which focus on a very particular part of history – a short and defined time period, a distinct group of people, or a specific geographic location – are ones which I continue to seek out.  Anne Sebba’s Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s contains all three elements, and I therefore eagerly picked it up.

9781780226613In June 1940, German troops occupied Paris, changing the lives of all of the capital city’s citizens in many ways, dramatically or otherwise.  Rather than look at a specific group of women  – either those who collaborated with the Nazis, or those who chose too defy them – Sebba examines the ‘moral grey area which all Parisiennes had to navigate in order to survive.’

In order to learn about her subjects, and what they went through during the Occupation, as well as afterwards, Sebba conducted ‘scores’ of interviews and read many firsthand accounts.  She successfully draws together testimonies of native Parisiennes and those visiting the city, for whatever reason, on a temporary basis: ‘American women and Nazi wives; spies, mothers, mistresses, artists, fashion designers and aristocrats.’

The Times Literary Supplement hails her achievement ‘richly intelligent…  Voices, belonging to women of all classes, ages and educational backgrounds, weep and sing through this extraordinary book.’  Author Edmund White notes that Sebba ‘understands everything about the chic, loathsome collaborators and the Holocaust victims, and their stories are told in an irresistible narrative flood.’  Sarah Helm (whose wonderful book If This is a Woman I reviewed here) praises Sebba for not offering ‘an explanation as to why some women chose one course, others another, rightly letting their actions and compelling life stories speak for themselves.’

In her prologue, Sebba recognises: ‘Echoes of the past continually resonate in modern-day France, because what happened here during the 1940s has left scars of such depth that many have not yet healed.  There is still a fear among some that touching the scars may reopen them.’  She writes that her aim is to ‘examine in these pages what factors weighed most heavily on women, causing them to respond in a particular way to the harsh and difficult circumstances in which they found themselves.’  Sebba goes on to say: ‘I want the pages that follow to avoid black and white, good and evil, but instead to reveal constant moral ambiguity, like a kaleidoscope that can be turned in any number of ways to produce a different image.’

Les Parisiennes is incredibly detailed, and impeccably researched.  A great deal of social history has been included, along with tiny details which have perhaps been overlooked by other researchers.  Along with the many women Sebba has chosen to include, she also writes about such things as the very exclusive air raid shelter set up at the Ritz in Paris, which was ‘soon famous for its fur rugs and Hermès sleeping bags.’  Sebba transports her readers to the city, which, despite the dire lack of fresh food, and the scary presence of soldiers, is still largely recognisable in the twenty-first century.

Sebba has included a very helpful ‘cast’ list of all of the women whom she writes about in Les Parisiennes.  These women are variously actresses, the wives of diplomats, students, secret agents, writers, models, and those in the resistance movement, amongst others.  She has assembled a huge range of voices, which enable her to build up a full and varied picture of what life in Occupied Paris was like.  Rather than simply end her account when the German troops leave, Sebba has chosen to write about two further periods: ‘Liberation (1944-1946)’, and ‘Reconstruction (1947-1949)’.  Les Parisiennes is, in consequence of a great deal of research, a very personal collective history.

Les Parisiennes has been incredibly well considered from start to finish.  The impartiality which Sebba gives each account works very well, and allows her to write about so many courageous, inspiring, and formidable women, all of whom did something to shape the city in the war years, and beyond.  The original evidence has been well pieced together, and the chronological structure, which seems perhaps obvious in such a book, serves it well.  Les Parisiennes is thorough and exact, whilst still remaining highly readable.  It is a triumph.

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‘Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Facism Through the Eyes of Everyday People’ by Julia Boyd *****

I received a copy of Julia Boyd’s Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Facism Through the Eyes of Everyday People for Christmas 2018, and it only took me some months to get to it due to my copy being at my parents’ house whilst I was away at University.  Boyd’s work of non-fiction has been called variously ‘fascinating’ (Spectator), ‘compelling’ (Daily Telegraph) and ‘meticulously researched’ (Literary Review).

9781783963812The core question asked in Travellers in the Third Reich is as follows: ‘Without the benefit of hindsight, how do you interpret what’s right in front of your eyes?’  Boyd refers back to this throughout, using a wide range of ‘accidental eyewitnesses to history’ – from students and journalists to tourists and celebrities – in order to try and pinpoint an answer.  Boyd has included such diversity with regard to the accounts selected, in order to ‘create a remarkable three-dimensional picture of Germany under Hitler – one so palpable that the reader will feel, hear, even breathe the atmosphere.’  She notes, in her introduction, that the ‘impressions and reflections of these assorted travellers naturally differ widely and are often profoundly contradictory’, and has deliberately used accounts from people with very different political leanings.

The Third Reich was what Germany was known as between the First and Second World Wars, when the National Socialist Party (more widely known as the Nazis) came to power, and cruelly changed the face of history.  Emphasis is placed in Boyd’s study upon impressions each ‘foreigner’ had of Hitler and the Nazi Party.  Few were disgusted outright by Hitler’s behaviour, and could see what was happening, but many were blinded by the propaganda campaign, and seemed genuinely shocked when they discovered later what the Nazi Party was capable of.  Boyd wonders: ‘How easy was it then to know what was really going on, to grasp the essence of National Socialism, to remain untouched by the propaganda or predict the Holocaust?’

As the title suggests, Boyd focuses upon those travelling to Germany for a particular purpose – either to spend time there as part of a holiday or as a government representative, amongst other reasons – but she also considers those who chose the country as their adopted homeland whilst studying there, for example.

Germany consistently encouraged tourism, as they understood its vital importance ‘as a propaganda tool.  It was essential that their negative image abroad be countered…  Foreign tourists must be given such a memorable experience in the Third Reich that once back home they would spontaneously sing its praises.  Luring them to Germany was therefore a high priority…’.  This led to the formation of the Reich Committee for Tourism in 1933.

Boyd takes into account both the positives and negatives that she came across in the firsthand accounts.  Several aristocratic or otherwise famous visitors adored Berlin and the Nazi Party – Unity Mitford is perhaps the most striking and well-known example – and others hated it; Vita Sackville-West ‘spent as little time there as possible during her husband’s posting to the British Embassy, while Virginia [Woolf] declared [Berlin] to be a “horror” and one she would never visit again.’  Other visitors were impressed by the way in which Germany embraced modernity, and admired what the country stood for in the wider world.  In 1933, for example, Boyd writes: ‘Even the politically sophisticated found Hitler’s Germany ambiguous.’

Travellers in the Third Reich is a considered and measured work of non-fiction.  The structure which Boyd has used, focusing on different groups of people, and different reasons they had for visiting Germany between the wars, is so effective.  She looks at such examples as the 1936 Summer Olympics, held in Berlin, and the draw of Germany as a fertile land for both authors and scenery, to those on the other side of the spectrum, who visited the country in order to take advantage of the sexual freedoms which it offered.

Boyd wonderfully situates all of the firsthand accounts, and her own commentary demonstrates that she has such strength in this subject. Her prose is absorbing; her style is easy to read, whilst also being very intelligently written.  I know much about this period already, having studied it for many years, but Travellers in the Third Reich has given me as a historian so much to consider that I had not thought of, or come across, before.  Boyd offers such food for thought in Travellers in the Third Reich, and I very much look forward to what she publishes next.

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One From the Archive: ‘Denial: Holocaust History on Trial’ by Deborah E. Lipstadt ***

In 1993, Deborah E. Lipstadt published a book called Denying the Holocaust.  In this, she called British historian David Irving, a prolific author of books on World War Two, ‘one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial’.  She went on to say that he was a ‘Hitler partisan wearing blinkers’, and that ‘on some level Irving seems to conceive himself as carrying on Hitler’s legacy’.  In the entire book, she devoted no more than two hundred words to Irving.  Despite this, and as he had done on previous occasions, Irving decided to file a court case against both Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin, for the ‘accusations’ which she levelled upon him.  These cases, and the ‘provocative books’ which he himself wrote, gave Irving ‘a certain notoriety’.  Denial: Holocaust History on Trial follows the entire trial, in which Lipstadt was victorious, from beginning to end.

Denial is described as a ‘riveting, blow-by-blow account of this singular legal battle, which resulted in a formal denunciation of a Holocaust denier that crippled the movement for years to come.  Lipstadt’s victory was proclaimed on the front page of newspapers around the world, such as The Times (UK) which declared that “history has had its day in court and scored a crushing victory.”‘  Elie Wiesel declares that Lipstadt’s book is an ‘absorbing narrative of an event that has reverberated throughout the world [and which] will be read with interest and gratitude by future generations’.  The San Francisco Chronicle deems it ‘possibly the most important Holocaust-related trial since Adolf Eichmann was tried in Israel in 1961.’9780062659651

As the trial was to take place at the Royal Courts of Justice in the United Kingdom, American lecturer and author Lipstadt faced very different judicial proceedings to those which she would have endured in the United States; a ‘mirror image’, no less.  In the United Kingdom, she was the person who had to prove that what she said about Irving was true; in the United States, it would have been up to Irving to prove Lipstadt wrong.  She had to assemble a legal team in the United Kingdom, as well as a research assistant under her care at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where she worked as a lecturer in Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies, to work tirelessly on amassing an extensive body of evidence.  She essentially had to prove to the courts that the Holocaust happened.

Denial brings together Lipstadt’s extensive journal entries, as well as transcripts of the trial.  It has been split into three sections, which deal with ‘The Prelude’, ‘The Trial’, and ‘The Aftermath’.  Lipstadt begins by setting out her interest in, and personal reasoning for, studying Modern Jewish History and the Holocaust, and then the process of how she came to research deniers, something which posed a challenge for her from the very beginning.

At first, I found Lipstadt’s prose style rather accessible and easy to read, but it soon became bogged down with so much detail from the trial.  At times, when a lot of participants are present in conversations or briefings, it can tend to get a little confused.  This is not due to the way in which Lipstadt sets things out; rather, it has to do with the naming of characters, and the ways in which she refers to them.  There is little consistency in places here; for instance, she speaks to historian Chris Browning, referring to him as ‘Browning’ in one sentence and ‘Chris’ the next.  This is easy enough for the reader to work out, of course, but it does feel a little jarring at times.

The confusion which I felt in particular passages may have been expected; due to the nature of the book, a lot of intricate legal language is used, and is not always explained in context.  Lipstadt discusses of the personal impact which the trial has upon her, although not always in as much detail as seemed fitting.  The pacing felt a little off at times, too, and some sections tended to feel a little plodding in consequence.  At times, there is a curious sense of detachment in Denial, despite Lipstadt herself being such an important part of the case.  This may be because she is unable to speak during the trial upon the advice of her lawyers, who do so on her behalf.

I am still baffled as to how anyone can dispute the horrors of the Holocaust; there is so much firsthand evidence available to the modern historian, all of it heartbreaking.  I very much admire Lipstadt for bringing such despicable Holocaust deniers to the fore in her work.  As Lipstadt notes, ‘In a way, I found it harder to write about deniers than about the Holocaust itself.  The Nazis were defeated.  Deniers were alive and kicking and reveling in their efforts.’

Despite this, I did not get on that well with the way in which the trial was presented in Denial.  As I read, I was continually asking myself whether I was enjoying the book.  Of course, given its nature and content, Denial has a lot of merit.  I found that overall, however, my reading experience felt rather negative.  Whilst the material here is fascinating, I did not feel as though the reportage of the trial was as well executed as it could have been.

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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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