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One From the Archive: ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing’ by Nina Sankovitch ****

First published in April 2014.

Nina Sankovitch, author of the highly acclaimed memoir Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magic Reading, has decided to explore the art of corresponding by letter in her newest book.  She has chosen to go ‘on a quest through the history of letters and her own personal correspondence to discover and celebrate what is special about the handwritten letter’.

It is utterly charming to write a book about something which seems, to the modern world, to be so quaint, particularly in an age when it is far more likely to type a quick email or contact friends through mediums like Facebook and Twitter, than to settle down with a pen and paper and send off the finished result in the more traditional way, envelope et al.  Those who love to read letter collections – and there are, it seems, many of us scattered around the globe – are sure to find much of interest within Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing.

Throughout, Sankovitch moves from letters written in ancient times, focusing upon those within Greece and Egypt, to the correspondence which exists between famous writers.  We as readers are able to see how letter writing has adapted over time, to fit the changing world – from documenting love and expressing sorrow, to solving the most brutal of crimes and passing trivial notes at school.  She begins her book with rather a sweet personal anecdote, of the moment at which her young son sent her his first letter: ‘He quickly covered an index card with blue marker squiggles, then carefully worked the card into an envelope.  His face serious, he turned and handed me the envelope’.  Sankovitch also writes of the importance of saving letters, believing that they are ‘the history of our lives made solid’, which ‘place us firmly within our history’.

Sankovitch’s writing style is lovely, and the warmth of her personality can be found in every page.  The way in which she weaves in her own experiences of writing and receiving letters, and the delicious silence which comes between the two, works marvellously.  An avid letter writer as a child, it seems as though she was spurred on to start writing Signed, Sealed, Delivered after unearthing ‘a trove of old letters’ from members of the Seligman family in the shed of her newly purchased house in New York.  Throughout, she sets out the history of each family or person whom she discovers through the art of their correspondence, describing the ways in which the things that they wrote and sent reveal crucial elements about themselves and their personalities.  She sees the importance in every scrap of letter which she encounters, believing that even the tiniest note has a story to tell.  The structure which Sankovitch uses is not a chronological one, but one segment leads wonderfully to another, and the entirety feels well-rounded in consequence.

Sankovitch also portrays the way in which letter writing through history has been able to cross the boundaries set in place by society – to speak about forbidden relationships, and to converse with those of other races in the United States far before the advent of the Civil Rights Movement, for instance.  The social history has been well written and considered, giving each letter and the story which goes with it a good grounding.  The author brings fascinating people to the fore, and the aforementioned Seligman family are a fabulous example of this.  One of the sons, James, whom Sankovitch is particularly fond of, is ‘a sweet and funny and affectionate correspondent’, who touchingly ‘wrote home almost daily’ when he was away.

Rather than becoming overdone in the stories it relates or its gushing love for letter writing, as could so easily have happened in the putting together of such a book, Sankovitch has created a work which is both far-reaching and concise.  Signed, Sealed, Delivered is a lovely piece of praise for something which should be revived – the simple practice of writing letters, which surely means a lot more to its recipient than a hastily composed email or text message.  Hopefully, Sankovitch will inspire far more people to correspond by traditional methods, and will help to bring back the popularity of something which has been so very important to our ancestors for millennia.

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‘If This is a Woman’ by Sarah Helm *****

In If This is a Woman, Sarah Helm has written utterly phenomenal study. She tells of the atrocities of Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp during the Second World War, and the only one of its kind exclusively for women prisoners. It is the first book to write extensively about Ravensbruck, one of the final camps to be liberated by the Russians.

9780349120034Only ten percent of Ravensbruck’s prisoners were Jewish, contrary to a lot of other camps; the rest were arrested due to opposition to the Nazi Party, and were drawn from such groups as communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Resistance in various European countries. There were also others deemed ‘asocials’, who ranged from lesbians to Gypsies. Among the prisoners were ‘the cream of Europe’s women’, including various countesses, a former British golfing champion, and the niece of General de Gaulle.

Helm draws upon the published testimonies of Ravensbruck’s prisoners, as well as seeking out those who survived the brutal conditions, and studying records of the court case which followed, aiming as it did to punish those who were in charge. Her research has been carried out impeccably, particularly considering that the majority of the papers relating to prisoners and conditions were burnt before liberation. Helm has aimed to create ‘a biography of Ravensbruck beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, piecing the broken story back together again as best I could’. The death toll from the camp is unknown, but is estimated to be somewhere between 30,000 and 90,000.

Helm’s writing style is immensely readable, and her research meticulous. If This is a Woman is such a well paced account, and the author never shies away from demonstrating how harrowing the conditions were, and how horrific the injuries and deaths which many within Ravensbruck faced. In trying to tell the individual stories of as many women as she possibly could, both prisoners and those who guarded them, she has added an invaluable biography to the field of Holocaust and Second World War studies.

If This is a Woman won the Longman-History Today Prize, which was incredibly well deserved. One can only hope that further accolades follow. <i>If This is a Woman</i> is, without a doubt, one of my favourite historical studies in terms of its far-reaching material and the sensitivity which has been continually demonstrated, as well as one of my books of the year.

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‘Renishaw Hall: The Story of the Sitwells’ by Desmond Seward ***

Since 1625, Derbyshire’s Renishaw Hall, built under the instruction of a Cavalier, has been the home of the Sitwell family. Desmond Seward, author of Renishaw Hall: The Story of the Sitwells, has, as well as providing a chronological history of the Sitwell family, woven in four centuries of goings-on in England, paying particular attention to some of those events which so impacted upon the illustrious family in question. He writes that ‘three centuries of colourful characters left their own stamp on Renishaw – such as the Regency Buck who added the great rooms and was known to have hunted a tiger with his hounds’.

Spanning the house from its beginnings until the present day, Renishaw Hall includes details of the painstaking renovation which the house has recently undergone. Seward believes that ‘modern Renishaw’s real creator was the under-estimated Sir George Sitwell, a pioneer of the Baroque revival… Better known are his children, the Trio – Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell – who were the Bloomsbury Group’s rivals in the 1920s and leading literary figures in the 1950s and 60s’. Of the siblings, the writer Harold Acton remarked, ‘The Sitwells might wander far from Renishaw, but they would always return in spirit’.

Within Renishaw Hall, much detail is amassed with regard to the births, marriages and deaths of various familial members, but there is often scarce information – particularly in the first half of the book – as to what each of the individual figures were like. In this manner, Seward’s work can tend to be a little dry in places. The primary sources – diary entries and extracts from letters – do augment the whole however, adding some of the contextual information and firsthand observations regarding those in question.

41t3bpzknzl-_sx332_bo1204203200_The narrative itself does not really pick up until the twentieth century begins; evidently the wealth of readily available information about Edith Sitwell and her immediate family has helped greatly to make the whole more interesting. The Trio almost leap to life upon the page – Osbert especially. That is not to say that Renishaw Hall is a badly written account by any means, but there is no sense of carefully measured prose, and the descriptions which would have made the whole immensely more readable are few and far between. Even the initial description of the house has been glossed over somewhat, and one has to rely on the included photographs to really get a good feel for its appearance.

As with family histories in general, it can be said that some of the Sitwells were far more intriguing, or worthy of more curiosity, than others. There are certainly several elements of interest concerning them and the social history which they lived within in Renishaw Hall; the acquisition of art, travels in bygone eras, and the relationships between the Trio and their father, who was largely seen as a buffoon. Renishaw, writes Seward, ‘meant most to Osbert, who, born in 1892, was aware from an early age that the house and the estate were going to be his’.

Renishaw Hall is an interesting commentary upon the life of a house and the family who inhabited it, but I did feel as though some of the information – particularly within the earlier chapters – could have been handled better. The inclusion of a Sitwell family tree would have been of use to refer to at times as well. I found some of Seward’s slightly odd turns of phrase a little jarring – ‘After Lytton Strachey was safely dead’, for example. Rather a slow starter, Renishaw Hall does pick up, and if you have any interest whatsoever in Edith Sitwell particularly, it is certainly worth a read. Saying that, it is certainly not the compelling account of an old country house and its inhabitants which it could have been.

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One From the Archive: ‘Andree’s War: How One Young Woman Outwitted the Nazis’ by Francelle Bradford White ****

After the German invasion of Paris in June 1940, Andree Griotteray ‘found herself living in an occupied city, forced to work alongside the invaders…  Her younger brother Alain set up his own resistance network to do whatever he could to defy the Nazis.  Andree risked her life to help him’.  Based on diaries written during the 1930s and 1940s and conversations which she held, and written largely as a response to the Alzheimer’s which now holds her in its grip, Andree’s War: How One Young Woman Outwitted the Nazis has been lovingly penned by Andree’s daughter, Francelle Bradford White.  Here, White aims to tell us ‘her mother’s incredible story: the narrow escapes and moments of terror alongside a typical teenager’s concerns about food, fashion and boys’.

White’s account of her mother’s life begins with her being granted the Legion d’honneur in 1995, as a measure of her bravery during the Second World War.  She was also accordingly awarded the Medaille de la Resistance and the Croix de Guerre.  White then goes on to set out the history of her family, and the factors which she believes led her mother and uncle Alain to become leading figures in the realm of the French Resistance movement.  She discusses what life was like for a comfortable and relatively well-off family such as the Griotterays in France’s capital, placing particular emphasis upon the alterations which came ‘as tensions in the run-up to the Second World War’ manifested themselves: ‘Shopping, a choice of reasonably elegant clothes, a choice of books, non-censored press, attending university, things which today are taken for granted and which should have been theirs, were no longer possible’.  Andree’s own perceptions, along with interest in and experiences of certain elements of wartime life, can be seen throughout, from theatre and patriotism, to her colleagues at the Police Headquarters, refugees, and deportations.

Many of the diary entries are copied out exactly as they were written, and White speaks of the care which she has taken in  preserving her mother’s use of idioms and certain patterns in her speech during her own efforts at translation.  For instance, Andree’s entry for the 5th of August 1940 reads simply, ‘It is unbearably hot at the moment.  We are leading the most awful life’.

Throughout, footnotes add often vital historical background to the whole; they are both succinct and well penned.  Some also contain the author’s memories of particular items or incidences – of a marble bust passed down through the family from Andree’s father, for example.  Further background to her mother’s diary entries is given too; White sets the scene and continually asserts her mother’s life and decisions made against the backdrop of war.  Andree’s War is packed with such emotional depth.  On the 23rd of August 1940, for example, Andree writes the following: ‘Life is so sad.  It is impossible for a young French girl to be carefree and happy because the Germans are occupying most of my country.  Maybe it does not upset everyone in the same way, but for me to walk around Paris, my home town, to see Germans travelling around in cars and admiring the sights, is heart-breaking.  I do understand the government’s position in allowing them to march in, not wanting Paris to be bombed and destroyed, but it is very hard’.

Andree’s War holds interest throughout; the whole has been so well written, and the primary sources have been handled with such care.  The book is absolutely fascinating, particularly with regard to the extent as to which the eldest Griotteray siblings aided the Resistance.  Incredible feats of heroics show themselves, and the way in which the past story has been interspersed with more recent events, in which Andree’s efforts were both recognised and rewarded, works marvellously.  Andree’s War is a memorable read, and is certainly a wonderful addition to the canon of World War Two diaries, respectfully written about a young woman who ultimately believed in sacrificing herself and her own safety for the greater good.

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Holiday Reading: The Cruise Edition

I am yet to finalise my holiday reading lists this year, but as part of my boyfriend and I’s trip to Florida in September, we have also booked a Caribbean and Latin American cruise.  I have read very little literature set in and around the countries and islands we are visiting, so I thought I would create a little list to hopefully pick from when it comes to choosing my holiday books.  I have tried to only choose two or three books per place so as not to make the list unmanageable, but for the Cayman Islands particularly, very few of the books set there personally appealed.

1. Cayman Islands

Founded Upon the Seas: A History of the Cayman Islands and Their People by 2533820Michael Craton
‘This book is the first comprehensive history of the Cayman Islands. Researched and written by the noted Caribbean Historian Michael Craton and the Cayman Islands New History Committee, it explores in detail the social, economic and political history of all three islands.  Researched, written edited and designed over a 6-year period, this book is in several respects a national history. The text and illustrations encompass the most important subjects, facts and events in Cayman History and its analysis of the main currents in Cayman’s past is addressed to the reader from a standpoint that is simultaneously modern, scholarly and Caymanian. Based on a wealth of information drawn from archives and libraries in the Caribbean, Europe and North America, the text is illustrated with rare maps, facsimile documents and numerous historical photographs.’

 

2. Roatan (Honduran island)

130520The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
In a breathtaking adventure story, the paranoid and brilliant inventor Allie Fox takes his family to live in the Honduran jungle, determined to build a civilization better than the one they’ve left. Fleeing from an America he sees as mired in materialism and conformity, he hopes to rediscover a purer life. But his utopian experiment takes a dark turn when his obsessions lead the family toward unimaginable danger.

 

Clementina Suarez: Her Life and Poetry by Janet N. Gold 2948768
Clementina Suárez (1902-91), the legendary matriarch of Honduran letters, scandalized Central American society with her bohemian lifestyle, her passionate woman-centered poetry, and her dedicated and unconventional promotion of art and literature.  This first biography of the notorious poet follows her life from the family home in an isolated rural province of Honduras to New York, Mexico, Cuba, and El Salvador, placing her in the company of some of the major figures of twentieth-century Latin American cultural and political life.  Using layers of rich sources–interviews with Suárez and her daughters and sisters conducted during a year’s stay in Honduras, recollections and written tributes of friends and artists, and archival material from public and private collections in Central America–Janet Gold weaves together the story of a writer who stubbornly chose to live as she pleased, with a well-balanced discussion of the social and cultural climate of twentieth-century Central America.  In Gold’s words, she paints a portrait of “haciendas and cantinas, mule trips to Tegucigalpa, and poetry recitals in the National Theatre. . . . posing for Diego Rivera, partying with Pablo Neruda and Miguel Angel Asturias, writing poems about sexuality and political commitment.”  In the Honduran psyche, Suárez has played the roles of liberated woman, fallen woman, femme fatale, prostitute, broken-hearted lover, muse, revolutionary poet, and respected woman of letters.  The process of reconciling the conflicting stories about Suárez with her personal response to this extraordinary woman enriched Gold’s task as a feminist biographer and led her to examine and appreciate the complex nature of “life writing.”  The result is this portrait of a woman poet that brings to life the person yet leaves the legend intact.

 

9780801477294The Broken Village: Coffee, Migration, and Globalization in Honduras by Daniel R. Reichman
‘In The Broken Village, Daniel R. Reichman tells the story of a remote village in Honduras that transformed almost overnight from a sleepy coffee-growing community to a hotbed of undocumented migration to and from the United States. The small village–called here by the pseudonym La Quebrada–was once home to a thriving coffee economy. Recently, it has become dependent on migrants working in distant places like Long Island and South Dakota, who live in ways that most Honduran townspeople struggle to comprehend or explain. Reichman explores how the new “migration economy” has upended cultural ideas of success and failure, family dynamics, and local politics.  During his time in La Quebrada, Reichman focused on three different strategies for social reform–a fledgling coffee cooperative that sought to raise farmer incomes and establish principles of fairness and justice through consumer activism; religious campaigns for personal morality that were intended to counter the corrosive effects of migration; and local discourses about migrant “greed” that labeled migrants as the cause of social crisis, rather than its victims. All three phenomena had one common trait: They were settings in which people presented moral visions of social welfare in response to a perceived moment of crisis. The Broken Village integrates sacred and secular ideas of morality, legal and cultural notions of justice, to explore how different groups define social progress.

 

3. Belize

Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet 10955031
Hal is a mild-mannered IRS bureaucrat who suspects that his wife is cheating with her younger, more virile coworker. At a drunken dinner party, Hal volunteers to fly to Belize in search of Susan’s employer, T.—the protagonist of Lydia Millet’s much-lauded novel How the Dead Dream—who has vanished in a tropical jungle, initiating a darkly humorous descent into strange and unpredictable terrain.  Salon raved that Millet’s “writing is always flawlessly beautiful, reaching for an experience that precedes language itself.” In Ghost Lights, she combines her characteristic wit and a sharp eye for the weirdness that governs human (and nonhuman) interactions. With the scathing satire and tender honesty of Sam Lipsyte and a dark, quirky, absurdist style reminiscent of Joy Williams, Millet has created a comic, startling, and surprisingly philosophical story about idealism and disillusionment, home and not home, and the singular, heartbreaking devotion of parenthood.

 

213258Jaguar: One Man’s Struggle to Establish the World’s First Jaguar Preserve by Alan Rabinowitz
In 1983, zoologist Alan Rabinowitz ventured into the rain forest of Belize, determined to study the little-known jaguar in its natural habitat and to establish the world’s first jaguar preserve. Within two years, he had succeeded. In Jaguar he provides the only first-hand account of a scientist’s experience with jaguars in the wild. Jaguar presents an irresistible blend of natural history and adventure; intensely personal, it is a portrait of an elusive, solitary predator and the Mayas with which it shares the jungle. Strong and sensitive, the book excitingly describes the rewards and hardships of fighting to protect this almost mythical cat.

 

An Anthology of Belizean Literature, edited by Victor Manuel Duran 13774118
This unique anthology utilizes the predominant themes of western literature to chronicle the prose and poetry of Belize. For this text, the editor has selected the original works of Belizean writers written in the four principle languages of the country: English, Creole, Spanish, and Garifuna. Via the many genres of Belizean literature, the work is able to recount in depth the history, struggles, colonial exploitation, and myths of the Belizeans as they strive for freedom and as they search for their identity. This anthology is a unique and important addition to the canon of Latin American Literature. It provides a greater understanding of the culture, history, and people of this small but linguistically diverse country in the heart of Central America. This anthology is essential to any course in Latin American literature.

 

4. Cozumel (Mexican island)

56899Aura by Carlos Fuentes
Felipe Montero is employed in the house of an aged widow to edit her deceased husband’s memoirs. There Felipe meets her beautiful green-eyed niece, Aura. His passion for Aura and his gradual discovery of the true relationship between the young woman and her aunt propel the story to its extraordinary conclusion.

 

Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea 5970496
Nineteen-year-old Nayeli works at a taco shop in her Mexican village and dreams about her father, who journeyed to the United States to find work. Recently, it has dawned on her that he isn’t the only man who has left town. In fact, there are almost no men in the village–they’ve all gone north. While watching The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli decides to go north herself and recruit seven men–her own “Siete Magníficos”–to repopulate her hometown and protect it from the bandidos who plan on taking it over.  Filled with unforgettable characters and prose as radiant as the Sinaloan sun, Into the Beautiful North is the story of an irresistible young woman’s quest to find herself on both sides of the fence.

 

25517Malinche by Laura Esquivel
This is an extraordinary retelling of the passionate and tragic love between the conquistador Cortez and the Indian woman Malinalli, his interpreter during his conquest of the Aztecs. Malinalli’s Indian tribe has been conquered by the warrior Aztecs. When her father is killed in battle, she is raised by her wisewoman grandmother who imparts to her the knowledge that their founding forefather god, Quetzalcoatl, had abandoned them after being made drunk by a trickster god and committing incest with his sister. But he was determined to return with the rising sun and save her tribe from their present captivity. When Malinalli meets Cortez she, like many, suspects that he is the returning Quetzalcoatl, and assumes her task is to welcome him and help him destroy the Aztec empire and free her people. The two fall passionately in love, but Malinalli gradually comes to realize that Cortez’s thirst for conquest is all too human, and that for gold and power, he is willing to destroy anyone, even his own men, even their own love.

 

Women With Big Eyes by Ángeles Mastretta 2008413
Women with Big Eyes is Mexican novelist Ángeles Mastretta’s most widely read work, now available for the first time in an English translation. Each of the stories in Women with Big Eyes reveals a different woman, yet they are linked by a single thread: the uniting revelation that women share an unnamed force, whether it comes in the form of iron resolve, flaming passion, or simply the knowing and mystical ways to nurture a soul.   Mastretta’s women are vibrant, sly, wise, earthy, and full of life, with stories that mesmerize. From these pages, they gaze at you, into you, each representing an aspect of what it means to be a woman with big eyes-able to see the world for what it is, to wink at it, and to make an uncompromising life within it.  Ángeles Mastretta is a delightful storyteller, and these tales are shot through with sex and laughter. Women with Big Eyes makes a perfect, exquisite gift for any woman with a passionate heart and radiant eyes.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which would you recommend?  Are there any other books set in any of the places above which you feel should be on my list?

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The Book Trail: The Holocaust Edition

I begin today’s edition of The Book Trail with a poignant memoir, Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ But You Did Not Come Back.  As ever, I have followed the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed…’ link on Goodreads to come up with an interesting list of tomes.

1. But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens 9780571328024
In 1944, at the age of fifteen, Marceline Loridan-Ivens was arrested in occupied France, along with her father. They were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. When they arrived, they were forcibly separated. Though he managed to smuggle a last note to her via an electrician, she never spoke to him again.  But You Did Not Come Back is Marceline’s letter to the father she would never know as an adult, to the man whose death has enveloped her life. With poignant honesty, she tells him of the events that have continued to haunt her, of the collapse of their family, and of her efforts to find a place in a changing world.  This is a breathtaking memoir by an extraordinary woman, and an intimate and deeply moving message from a daughter to her father.

 

2. The Heavens are Empty: Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod by Avrom Bendavid-Val (preface by Jonathan Safran Foer) 8302861
In the 19th century, nearly five million Jews lived in the Pale of Settlement. Most lived in shtetls—Jewish communities connected to larger towns—images of which are ingrained in popular imagination as the shtetl Anatevka from Fiddler on the Roof. Brimming with life and tradition, family and faith, these shtetls existed in the shadow of their town’s oppressive anti-Jewish laws. Not Trochenbrod.  Trochenbrod was the only freestanding, fully realized Jewish town in history. It began with a few Jewish settlers searching for freedom from the Russian Czars’ oppressive policies, which included the forced conscriptions of one son from each Jewish family household throughout Russia. At first, Trochenbrod was just a tiny row of houses built on empty marshland in the middle of the Radziwill Forest, yet for the next 130 years it thrived, becoming a bustling marketplace where people from all over the Ukraine and Poland came to do business. But this scene of ethnic harmony was soon shattered, as Trochenbrod vanished in 1941—her residents slaughtered, her homes, buildings, and factories razed to the ground. Yet even the Nazis could not destroy the spirit of Trochenbrod, which has lived on in stories and legends about a little piece of heaven, hidden deep in the forest.

 

6197853. Wallenberg: Missing Hero by Kati Marton
A fearless young Swede whose efforts saved countless Hungarian Jews from certain death at the hands of Adolf Eichmann, Raoul Wallenberg was one of the true heroes to emerge during the Nazi occupation of Europe.

 

4. The Diary of Mary Berg by Mary Berg
After 60 years of silence, ‘The Diary of Mary Berg’ is poised at last to gain the appreciation and widespread attention that it so richly deserves, and is certain to take it’s place alongside ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ as one of the most significant memoirs of the twentieth century. From love to tragedy, seamlessly combining the everyday concerns of a growing teenager with a unique commentary on life in one of the 556980darkest contexts of history. This is a work remarkable for its authenticity, detail, and poignancy. But it is not only as a factual report on the life and death of a people that ‘The Diary of Mary Berg’ ranks with the most noteworthy documents of the Second World War.   This is the personal story of a life-loving girl’s encounter with unparalleled human suffering, a uniquely illuminating insight into one of the darkest chapters of history. Mary Berg was imprisoned in the ghetto from 1940 to 1943. Unlike so many others, she survived the war, having been rescued in a prisoner-of-war exchange due to her mother’s dual Polish-American nationality.  Berg’s diary was published in 1945 when she was still only 19, in an attempt to alert the world to the Nazi atrocities in Poland, when it was described as “one of the most heartbreaking documents yet to come out of the war.

 

5. Into the Tunnel: The Brief Life of Marion Samuel by Gotz Aly
1839242When the German Remembrance Foundation established a prize to commemorate the million Jewish children murdered during the Holocaust, it was deliberately named after a victim about whom nothing was known except her age and the date of her deportation: Marion Samuel, an eleven-year-old girl killed in Auschwitz in 1943. Sixty years after her death, when Götz Aly received the award, he was moved to find out whatever he could about Marion’s short life and restore this child to history.  In what is as much a detective story as a historical reconstruction, Aly, praised for his “formidable research skills” (Christopher Browning), traces the Samuel family’s agonizing decline from shop owners to forced laborers to deportees. Against all odds, Aly manages to recover expropriation records, family photographs, and even a trace of Marion’s voice in the premonition she confided to a school friend: “People disappear,” she said, “into the tunnel.”  A gripping account of a family caught in the tightening grip of persecution, Into the Tunnel is a powerful reminder that the millions of Nazi victims were also, each one, an individual life.

 

6. Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Israel Gutman 458673
One of the few survivors of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising, Holocaust scholar Gutman draws on diaries, personal letters, and underground press reports in this compelling, authoritative account of a landmark event in Jewish history. Here, too, is a portrait of the vibrant culture that shaped the young fighters, whose inspired defiance would have far-reaching implications for the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

 

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

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Really Underrated Books (Part Two)

Part two of this week’s Really Underrated Books showcase brings to light some fascinating looking tomes.

1. Going West by Maurice Gee 866199
For all the promise of his name, Jack Skeat cannot be a poet. His friend Rex Petley – eel-catcher, girl-chaser, motorbike rider – takes that prize. Is he also a murderer? And why, forty years later, does he drown out on the Gulf? Jack has to find out, and is drawn to examine their lives. Going West has long been regarded as one of the most autobiographical of Maurice Gee’s novels.

 

2. Roger Fry: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf’s only true biography, written to commemorate a devoted friend and one of the most renowned art critics of this century, who helped to bring the Postimpressionist movement from France to England and America.

 

16198633. I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister, 1791-1840, edited by Helena Whitbread
Upon publication, the first volume of Anne Lister’s diaries, “I Know My Own Heart,” met with celebration, delight, and some skepticism. How could an upper class Englishwoman, in the first half of the nineteenth century, fulfill her emotional and sexual needs when her sexual orientation was toward other women? How did an aristocratic lesbian manage to balance sexual fulfillment with social acceptability?  Helena Whitbread, the editor of these diaries, here allows us an inside look at the long-running love affair between Anne Lister and Marianna Lawton, an affair complicated by Anne’s infatuation with Maria Barlow. Anne travels to Paris where she discovers a new love interest that conflicts with her developing social aspirations. For the first time, she begins to question the nature of her identity and the various roles female lovers may play in the life of a gentrywoman. Though unequipped with a lesbian vocabulary with which to describe her erotic life, her emotional conflicts are contemporary enough to speak to us all.  This book will satisfy the curiosity of the many who became acquainted with Lister through I Know My Own Heart and are eager to learn more about her revealing life and what it suggests about the history of sexuality.

 

4. Victorine by Maude Hutchins
Victorine is thirteen, and she can’t get the unwanted surprise of her newly sexual body, in all its polymorphous and perverse insistence, out of her mind: it is a trap lying in wait for her at every turn (and nowhere, for some reason, more than in church). Meanwhile, Victorine’s older brother Costello is struggling to hold his own against the overbearing, mean-spirited, utterly ghastly Hector L’Hommedieu, a paterfamilias who collects and discards mistresses with scheming abandon even as Allison, his wife, drifts through life in a narcotic daze.   And Maude Hutchins’s Victorine? It’s a sly, shocking, one-of-a-kind novel that explores sex and society with wayward and unabashedly weird inspiration, a drive-by snapshot of the great abject American family in its suburban haunts by a literary maverick whose work looks forward to—and sometimes outstrips—David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and the contemporary paintings of Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin.

 

5. The Penguin Book of First World War Stories, edited by Barbara Korte 3212619.jpg
This new collection of short stories about World War I features works by such famous British authors as Joseph Conrad, W. Somerset Maugham, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Rudyard Kipling, D. H. Lawrence, John Galsworthy, Radclyffe Hall, Katherine Mansfield, Robert Graves, Muriel Spark, and Julian Barnes. Written during the war and after, these stories illustrate the impact of the Great War on British society and culture, as well as the many ways in which short fiction contributed to the literature of that time period.

 

6. Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard
Born in 1918 into a working-class Edinburgh family, Muriel Spark ended her life as the epitome of literary chic, one of the great writers of the 20th century. This book tells her story.

 

208197177. The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha
Set in Cairo between 1997 and 2011, The Crocodiles is narrated in numbered, prose poem-like paragraphs, set against the backdrop of a burning Tahrir Square, by a man looking back on the magical and explosive period of his life when he and two friends started a secret poetry club amid a time of drugs, messy love affairs, violent sex, clumsy but determined intellectual bravado, and retranslations of the Beat poets. Youssef Rakha’s provocative, brutally intelligent novel of growth and change begins with a suicide and ends with a doomed revolution, forcefully capturing thirty years in the life of a living, breathing, daring, burning, and culturally incestuous Cairo.

 

8. The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman
In a prose form as startling as its content, “The Shutter of Snow” portrays the post-partum psychosis of Marthe Gail, who after giving birth to her son, is committed to an insane asylum. Believing herself to be God, she maneuvers through an institutional world that is both sad and terrifying, echoing the worlds of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Snake Pit.”  Based upon the author’s own experience after the birth of her son in 1924, “The Shutter of Snow” retains all the energy it had when first published in 1930.

 

9. Orpheus: The Song of Life by Ann Wroe 16088815
A powerful and poetic work of history on the figure of Orpheus: his life and myth, and his representation and imagining from the sixth century BC to the present day.  For at least two and a half millennia, the figure of Orpheus has haunted humanity. Half-man, half-god, musician, magician, theologian, poet and lover, his story never leaves us. He may be myth, but his lyre still sounds, entrancing everything that hears it: animals, trees, water, stones, and men.  In this extraordinary work Ann Wroe goes in search of Orpheus, from the forests where he walked and the mountains where he worshipped to the artefacts, texts and philosophies built up round him. She traces the man, and the power he represents, through the myriad versions of a fantastical life: his birth in Thrace, his studies in Egypt, his voyage with the Argonauts to fetch the Golden Fleece, his love for Eurydice and journey to Hades, and his terrible death. We see him tantalising Cicero and Plato, and breathing new music into Gluck and Monteverdi; occupying the mind of Jung and the surreal dreams of Cocteau; scandalising the Fathers of the early Church, and filling Rilke with poems like a whirlwind. He emerges as not simply another mythical figure but the force of creation itself, singing the song of light out of darkness and life out of death.

 

10. The Giants by Jean Marie G. Le Clezio
Upon an immense stretch of flat ground at the mouth of a river bathed in sunlight rises Hyperpolis. It stands there, surrounded by its four asphalt car-parks, to condemn us – a huge enveloping supermarket. Each of us will see ourselves reflected in the characters who move mindlessly about Hyperpolis, but The Giants is a call to rebellion. This bold and inventive novel is the work of a tremendously talented writer and both an intoxicating and exhilarating read.

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