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Five Great Memoirs

I have always delighted in learning about the lives of others, and have tried to incorporate as many memoirs into my reading as is possible.  I enjoy reading about individuals, particularly women, whose lives are very different to my own, and always find this a highly enriching experience.  With this in mind, I have gathered together five wonderful memoirs of women which I have read of late, and which I would highly recommend.  There are illness narratives, translated books, works set during wartime, and quiet meditations in the list, and I dearly hope that you find something new to pick up.

34104392._sy475_1. The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs *****
An exquisite memoir about how to live–and love–every day with “death in the room,” from poet Nina Riggs, mother of two young sons and the direct descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the tradition of When Breath Becomes Air.  Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer–one small spot. Within a year, the mother of two sons, ages seven and nine, and married sixteen years to her best friend, received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal.  How does one live each day, “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty?  Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, even as she wrestles with the legacy of her great-great-great grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nina Riggs’s breathtaking memoir continues the urgent conversation that Paul Kalanithi began in his gorgeous When Breath Becomes Air. She asks, what makes a meaningful life when one has limited time?  Brilliantly written, disarmingly funny, and deeply moving, The Bright Hour is about how to love all the days, even the bad ones, and it’s about the way literature, especially Emerson, and Nina’s other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer. It’s a book about looking death squarely in the face and saying “this is what will be.”  Especially poignant in these uncertain times, The Bright Hour urges us to live well and not lose sight of what makes us human: love, art, music, words.

2. When a Toy Dog Became a Wolf and the Moon Broke Curfew by Hendrika de Vries 45480725._sy475_****
Born in the Netherlands at a time when girls are to be housewives and mothers and nothing else, Hendrika de Vries is a “daddy’s girl” until her father is deported from Nazi-occupied Amsterdam to a POW camp in Germany and her mother joins the Resistance. In the aftermath of her father’s departure, Hendrika watches as freedoms formerly taken for granted are eroded with escalating brutality by men with swastika armbands who aim to exterminate those they deem “inferior” and those who do not obey.  As time goes on, Hendrika absorbs her mother’s strength and faith, and learns about moral choice and forced silence. She sees her hidden Jewish “stepsister” betrayed, and her mother interrogated at gunpoint. She and her mother suffer near starvation, and they narrowly escape death on the day of liberation. But they survive it all—and through these harrowing experiences, Hendrika discovers the woman she wants to become.

50403465._sy475_3. The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War by Delphine Minoui ****
Award-winning journalist Delphine Minoui recounts the true story of a band of young rebels in a besieged Syrian town, who find hope and connection making an underground library from the rubble of war.  Day in, day out, bombs fall on Daraya, a town outside Damascus, the very spot where the Syrian Civil War began. In the midst of chaos and bloodshed, a group searching for survivors stumbles on a cache of books. They collect the books, then look for more. In a week they have six thousand volumes. In a month, fifteen thousand. A sanctuary is born: a library where the people of Daraya can explore beyond the blockade.  Long a site of peaceful resistance to the Assad regimes, Daraya was under siege for four years. No one entered or left, and international aid was blocked.  In 2015, French-Iranian journalist Delphine Minoui saw a post on Facebook about this secret library and tracked down one of its founders, twenty-three-year-old Ahmad, an aspiring photojournalist himself. Over WhatsApp and Facebook, Minoui learned about the young men who gathered in the library, exchanged ideas, learned English, and imagined how to shape the future, even as bombs fell above. They devoured a marvelous range of books–from American self-help like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to international bestsellers like The Alchemist, from Arabic poetry by Mahmoud Darwish to Shakespearean plays to stories of war in other times and places, such as the siege of Sarajevo. They also shared photos and stories of their lives before and during the war, planned how to build a democracy, and began to sustain a community in shell-shocked soil.  As these everyday heroes struggle to hold their ground, they become as much an inspiration as the books they read. And in the course of telling their stories, Delphine Minoui makes this far-off, complicated war immediate. In the vein of classic tales of the triumph of the human spirit–like All the Beautiful Forevers, A Long Way Gone, and Reading Lolita in TehranThe Book Collectors will inspire readers and encourage them to imagine the wider world.

4. These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards by Jean Sprackland **** 49569565._sy475_
Graveyards are oases: places of escape, of peace and reflection. Each is a garden or nature reserve, but also a site of commemoration, where the past is close enough to touch: a liminal place, at the border of the living world.  Jean Sprackland’s prize-winning book, Strands, brought to life the histories of objects found on a beach. These Silent Mansions is also an uncovering of individual stories: vivid, touching and intimately told. Sprackland travels back through her own life, revisiting graveyards in the ordinary towns and cities she has called home, seeking out others who lived, died and are remembered or forgotten there. With her poet’s eye, she makes chance discoveries among the stones and inscriptions: a notorious smuggler tucked up in a sleepy churchyard; ancient coins unearthed on a secret burial ground; a slow-worm basking in the sun.  These Silent Mansions is an elegant, exhilarating meditation on the relationship between the living and the dead, the nature of time and loss, and how – in this restless, accelerated world – we can connect the here with the elsewhere, the present with the past.

49114654._sx318_5. Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul by Taran N. Khan ****
For most Indians, Kabul is a city that is near, yet far-familiar, yet unknown. When Taran N. Khan arrived in Kabul in the spring of 2006, five years after the overthrow of the Taliban regime, she was earnestly cautioned never to walk. Her instincts compelled her to do the opposite: to take that precarious first step and enter the life of the city with the unique, tactile intimacy that comes from being a walker. She didn’t stop until 2013, when she returned to India.  In Shadow City, Taran N. Khan paints a lyrical, personal, and meditative portrait of a city we know primarily in terms of conflict and peace. As a Muslim woman raised in a small town in India, Taran discovered that she had access to parts of Kabul uncharted by travellers before her. The result reads like an elegiac prose map of the city, rich with surprises-from the glitter of wedding halls that shine like a bizarre version of Las Vegas; to the mental health hospital where women are abandoned and isolated but exist in a rare space of freedom and solitude; to the bookseller behind The Bookseller of Kabul, who sued Åsne Seierstad for her portrayal of him and then published the rebuttal which he displays proudly in his shop window.

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‘The Choice’ by Edith Eger ****

I have wanted to read Edith Eger’s Holocaust memoir, The Choice, since it was first published in 2017, and picked up a cheap secondhand copy in a local branch of Oxfam before Christmas.  Eger’s memoir has been so highly reviewed, with many pointing to the courage which she showed even at her bleakest moments.  The New York Times Book Review goes one step further, urging everyone who cares ‘about both their inner freedom and the future of humanity’ to read it.

In 1944, sixteen-year-old ballerina, Edith Eger, was sent to Auschwitz.  She was immediately separated from her parents, and was later made to dance before notorious camp doctor, Josef Mengele.  Despite everything she went through, the book’s blurb insists that ‘the horrors of the Holocaust didn’t break Edith.  In fact, they helped her learn to live again with a life-affirming strength and a truly remarkable resilience.’

The Choice has been split into four distinct sections – ‘Prison’, ‘Escape’, ‘Freedom’, and 9781846045127‘Healing’.  She gives her account chronologically, and makes clear in her introduction that she only began to write her memoir in 1980, whilst working as a psychologist.  Of her troubled patient Jason, whom she also introduces here, she finds so much wholly applicable to her own past: ‘… despite our obvious differences, there was much we shared.  We both knew violence.  And we both knew what it was like to become frozen.  I also carried a wound within me, a sorrow so deep that for many years I hadn’t been able to speak of it at all, to anyone.’

Eger goes on to write about time and its healing process: ‘What happened can never be forgotten and can never be changed.  But over time I learned that I can choose how to respond to the past.  I can be miserable, or I can be hopeful – I can be depressed, or I can be happy.  We always have that choice, that opportunity for control.’

Eger was born in the town of Kassa, Hungary, which was renamed Košice and became part of Czechoslovakia.  At this point, Eger writes that ‘my family became double minorities.  We were ethnic Hungarians living in a predominantly Czech country, and we were Jewish.’  The town became part of Hungary again in 1938.  Throughout The Choice, she speaks about her childhood, her memories, and the relationship which she had with her parents and siblings.  Her father is taken to a work camp, and is only released eight months afterwards.  After this, Eger is captured and taken to Auschwitz, along with her mother and sister, Magda.  Her mother is taken immediately to the gas chambers.  Here, Eger touchingly reflects on the state which this left her in: ‘I am numb.  I can’t think about the incomprehensible things that are happening, that have already happened.  I can’t picture my mother consumed by flames.  I can’t fully grasp that she is gone.’

Throughout, Eger speaks so honestly about her own experiences.  There is, understandably, a lot of horror within her past, and she does not shy away from describing this to the reader.  She writes of the way in which she was able to hold onto her humanity, and the bravery which this took is quite astounding.  Eger says: ‘The words I heard inside my head made a tremendous difference in my ability to maintain hope.  This was true for other inmates as well.  We were able to discover an inner strength we could draw on – a way to talk to ourselves that helped us feel free inside, that kept us grounded in our own morality, that gave us foundation and assurance even when the external forces sought to control and obliterate us.’

The imagery which Eger relays is often haunting.  On their liberation, she reflects: ‘What are we now?  Our bones look obscene, our eyes are caverns, blank, dark, empty.  Hollow faces.  Blue-black fingernails.  We are trauma in motion.  We are a slow moving parade of ghouls.’  She tends not to write only about her experiences in the camps, and directly afterwards; rather, she focuses upon the ways in which she came to terms with it after her liberation.  Like the vast majority of survivors, she was left with major issues with her health, and had to come to terms with what it meant to live back in the world.  She was also forced to cope with the absence of her parents, and her boyfriend, Eric.

The second half of Eger’s memoir is focused upon her marriage, the career which she works so hard to have, and the patients whom she meets, all of whom seem able to teach her something about her own life and perspectives.  Occasionally, these recollections of patients do feel a little preachy, and overall, I feel as though I personally got a lot more out of the first half of the book than the second.

The Choice is a wonderful memoir, filled with sadness but also an unbreakable sense of hope, which carried Eger through into her present.  One cannot help but be moved by Eger’s words, and the attitude which she takes toward her past.  Her prose is engaging, and filled to the brim with emotion and compassion.  The Choice leans toward the philosophical at times, and certainly gives a lot of food for thought.

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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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‘Irena’s Children’ by Tilar J. Mazzeo ****

Irena’s Children, a biographical account of Irena Sendler, a woman who saved thousands of children’s lives in Warsaw during the Second World War, has been written by New York Times bestselling author Tilar J. Mazzeo.  I have been fascinated by Sendler since I first learnt about her quite a few years ago, but at the time, I found it very difficult to find any books which focused upon her.  I was thrilled, therefore, when I spotted Irena’s Children quite by chance when browsing in the library, and began it almost as soon as I returned home. 9781471152610

Known as ‘the female Schindler’, Sendler, along with a vast network of resistance members, saved over 2,500 children from the Nazis in occupied Poland.  At the outbreak of war, Sendler, a Catholic, had just received a Master’s degree in social work, and had found employment as a social worker.  She was therefore allowed access to the Warsaw Ghetto, an area which all of the Jewish citizens of the city were forced to move into.  The Ghetto, overcrowded and suffering from a lack of food and sanitation, was the cruellest of places.  Mazzeo describes it as follows: ‘An area of seventy-three streets in the city – just over four percent of the streets in Warsaw – had been reserved for the Jews, carved out from what had long been one of the poorest and most run-down neighborhoods in the city centre.’  At its height, the Ghetto held over 250,000 people, many of whom were sent to different concentration camps.

Throughout the pogrom, and until the liquidation of the Ghetto in May 1943, Sendler had to ask many parents to trust her with their children.  She then set out ‘smuggling them out of the walled district, convincing friends and neighbours to hide them.  With their help and the help of local tradesmen and her lover in the Jewish Resistance, Irena made dangerous trips through the city’s sewers, hid children in coffins, snuck them out under overcoats at checkpoints and slipped them through secret passageways in abandoned buildings.’  Sendler kept extensive lists of the children’s real names, hoping that by doing so, they could be reunited with their families after the war’s end.  Of course, this only happened in relatively few cases, as many of the children’s families were murdered in concentration camps, or in the Ghetto itself.  She wrote each child’s name, along with the names of their parents and their addresses, in code on ‘flimsy scraps’ of cigarette paper, which she hid as best she could.

The leaders of the Resistance recognised how valuable Sendler was, and set up a cell under her direction.  She was more than willing to use her own initiative, and work closely with others, in order to save so many Jewish children: ‘Irena had wanted an adventure and, knowing that they were fighting against their oppressor, even if it was dangerous, made her feel alive.’

Sendler evaded detection for such a long time due to her appearance, and even when she was captured by the Nazis and taken in to be tortured, they were completely oblivious to the fact that they had one of the key members of the Resistance network in their clutches.  They thought that, because she looked like a feeble woman, she must just be a minor player, and could lead them to the main orchestrators of the movement.  Sendler is described as a ‘feather of a person with an iron spirit: a four-foot-eleven-inch wisp of a young woman, in her late twenties when the war began, who fought with the ferocity and intelligence of an experienced general and organized, across the city of Warsaw and across the divides of religion, dozens of average people into foot soldiers.’

In her prologue, which opens with a moment in 1943 in which the Gestapo come for Sendler, Mazzeo is honest and fair: ‘To make her a saint in the telling of her story is, in the end, to do a kind of dishonor to the true complexity and difficulty of her very human choices.’  She goes on to say, in the book’s preface, that ‘Irena’s love life was anarchic and unruly, and she struggled with the knowledge that she was not a good wife or a good daughter.  She placed her frail and ailing mother in grave danger and kept the knowledge of those risks from her.  She was reckless and sometimes myopic… and, at moments, she was perhaps even selfish in her selflessness.’  Mazzeo pieced together Irena’s Children by using primary materials, as well as Sendler’s own recollections, and interviews with some of those whom she helped.

Sendler’s childhood, and her reasoning for wanting to help others, is documented fully, and is also well-situated historically.  Whilst there is a lot of information woven through Irena’s Children, and such a high level of scholarship to boot, the book is markedly easy to read.  Irena’s Children brings to the fore the story of an important, and incredibly courageous, woman, who risked her own life multiple times every day in order to help others to survive.  This biography, fascinating and harrowing in equal measure, should be read by everyone.

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‘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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‘Hannah Goslar Remembers: A Childhood Friend of Anne Frank’ by Hannah Goslar and Alison Leslie Gold ****

Hannah Goslar, a friend of Anne Frank’s and a survivor of the Holocaust, tells her story here in tandem with Alison Leslie Gold. The two met in Israel in 1993, where Goslar now lives, and Gold transcribed what Goslar told her. ‘We did the interviews in English,’ Gold writes, ‘which Hannah had learned as a schoolgirl over fifty years ago. Because I wanted the book to sound like Hannah, sometimes the style is a little cryptic.’  Hannah Goslar Remembers: A Childhood Friend of Anne Frank is, says its blurb, ‘a moving testimony to a girl who survived a terrible ordeal and another who did not.’ 9780747592242

This particular Holocaust memoir is very much aimed at younger readers; it presumes that one knows very little about the Holocaust in its introduction, or of Anne and her diary. The book uses an omniscient voice, in which Goslar herself appears as a character rather than a narrator. This narrative style sometimes verges on the simplistic.

The Goslar and Frank families, both of whom had moved from Germany during the Nazi Party’s rise to power in the late 1930s, were neighbours in Amsterdam for almost a decade, and became very close friends. The account which Goslar provides here begins in 1942, when she found out that the Franks had left their home. They did so under the guise of going to neutral, and therefore safe, Switzerland, and brought this up with various friends and neighbours before they went into hiding in the annexe of Otto Frank’s workplace.

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Anne Frank and Hannah Goslar, Amsterdam, May 1940

A Childhood Friend of Anne Frank feels, in tone and style, as though it would be the perfect accompaniment to the likes of Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and its sequels. It is a compelling memoir, filled with such sadness, but also a great deal of hope. Of course, it tells of Goslar’s own experiences more than it does Anne Frank’s; we learn about Goslar before, during, and after she and her family were transported to Westerbork, in Eastern Holland. Goslar later met up with Anne Frank again when both were moved to Bergen-Belsen, where Anne sadly died shortly before the camp’s liberation. A Childhood Friend of Anne Frank is moving, and gives an insightful portrait of a childhood friendship, and the war and persecution which tore it apart.

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‘Anne Frank: The Biography’ by Melissa Muller *****

I purchased a revised and expanded edition of Melissa Muller’s Anne Frank: The Biography on an affecting trip to the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam last year.  I have been so looking forward to reading it, but for some reason – emotional turmoil over Anne’s story, I expect, which never fails to bring me to tears – it took me some time to pick it up.  The Sunday Telegraph deems Muller’s biography ‘sensitive, serious and scrupulous’, and the Independent believes it to be an ‘accurate and honest portrait’.  The New York Times writes that Anne Frank: The Biography ‘acts as a supplement to the diary, filling in Anne’s fragmentary view of her own life’.

9781408842102I have read Anne’s own diary – which has sold more than thirty million copies in over seventy languages to date – countless times, as well as rather a few books about her, but Anne Frank: The Biography has become one of my absolute favourites.  It has been translated from its original German by Rita and Robert Kimber.  In this updated edition, Muller ‘details new theories surrounding the family’s betrayal, revelations about the pressure put on their helpers by the Nazi party and the startling discovery that the Franks had applied for a visa to the US.’

In her foreword, Muller writes of Anne’s importance: ‘Over the past sixty years, Anne Frank has become a universal symbol of the oppressed in a world of violence and tyranny.  Her name invokes humanity, tolerance, human rights, and democracy; her image is the epitome of optimism and the will to live.’  Upon her initial reading of Anne’s diary, Muller had many questions which were left unanswered; this inspired her to research and write Anne Frank: The Biography.  At this point, she says, ‘my search began – initially in the 1990s – to search for the person behind the legend, a search for the incidents and events that shaped the life and personality of Annelies Marie Frank.’  Her aim, she goes on, ‘was to gather as many fragments of the mosaic as possible and create as authentic a picture of Anne’s brief life as I could, illuminating the familial and social circumstances that provided the foundation of her life and left their mark on it.’

Anne Frank: The Biography opens with a copy of the Frank and Hollander family trees, which become useful to refer to when grandparents and great-grandparents are introduced into the narrative.  The initial chapter of the book opens on a scene in August 1944.  This, at first, seems like an ordinary day in the annexe in which Anne and her family, along with others, are hiding, but it proves to be the day on which they are discovered by the Dutch Nazis.  After they have been taken away, Muller describes how Miep and Bep, office workers who helped them to hide, retrieve Anne’s diary, not reading a single page so as to protect her privacy.  They hoped to be able to give it back to her after the war.

The second chapter then begins with Anne’s birth in Frankfurt, where her family lived on the outskirts of the city.  Of their new arrival, the Franks ‘had worried that Margot might be jealous of the baby, but Margot laughed with delight when she saw her.  Anne’s ears stuck out comically, and her wild black hair was silky and soft.’  A chronological timeline is followed from this chapter onward, and we are able to chart Anne’s progress as she grows, and becomes more independent.  Particular attention is paid to the craft of Anne’s writing, wishing as she did to become a novelist when she grew up.  ‘Her style,’ Muller writes, ‘improved rapidly, with astonishing speed considering her age…  The more she wrote, the sharper her observations became and the clearer her expression of those observations; the keener, too, her understanding of others and – as if she could step outside herself and look back in – of herself as well.  What she had begun in adolescent dreaminess ultimately achieved, in many passages, a maturity that was as convincing as it was astonishing.’

Political and social occurrences, particularly those which relate to the restrictions placed upon Jewish people, run alongside the lives of the Frank family.  This social context has been provided throughout, and adds depth and understanding.  Upon the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, for instance, Muller states: ‘In one day the social structure of Holland had been transformed.  Where once there had been rich and poor, an upper and a lower class, a right wing and a left wing, and various religious blocs, now only one criterion distinguished good from bad, friend from enemy: was a person anti-German or pro-German?’  Along with historical facts, Muller weaves in the interested and intelligent Anne’s own opinions.  Upon the surrender of the Netherlands, ‘Anne was outraged…  Surrender was a concept she was hearing about for the first time, and she didn’t like the sound of it.  It didn’t suit her character.’

Counter to its title, Anne Frank: The Biography is not simply a biographical account of Anne; it includes details of both her immediate and extended family members on both sides, as well as accounts of family friends, and her schoolmates.  Photographs have been dotted throughout, which adds to the narrative, and shows those around Anne, first in Germany, and then in Amsterdam, where her family moved when she was small.  Perhaps most moving in terms of these portraits is the impression we receive of her doting father, Otto.  When writing about Anne and Margot’s friends in Amsterdam, Muller says: ‘The greatest delight of all was Mr. Frank.  His wife was always there and always friendly, but the children hardly noticed her; they took such things for granted in mothers.  But Otto Frank, at almost six feet a tall man for those days, was special.  With Mr. Frank you could talk and joke about anything.  He made up games, told stories, always had a comforting word, and seemed to forgive Anne everything…  Otto’s high spirits were truly infectious.  And when he was at home he spent more time with his children than most other fathers did.’  Of course, Anne is always the central focus here, but more of an understanding of her character can be gained from seeing those around her.

Muller is so understanding of Anne’s character and qualities, and notes how great an effect being in the annexe had for her: ‘At a time when a young person is recalcitrant and restless, defiant and temperamental, full of questions and searching for answers, baffled, helpless, and often irritable, Anne had no outlets for her feelings, no way to let off steam…  Anne herself described the period from 1942 until well into 1943 as a difficult time.  In the long days of loneliness and despair and of conflict not only with her housemates but also and primarily with herself, Kitty and the diary became her closest confidants.’

Muller’s prose style makes Anne Frank: The Biography a very easy book to read; it is intelligent and measured, not to mention packed with detail, but it still feels readily accessible.  The biography is considerate and meticulously researched and, as one would expect, is both touching and harrowing throughout.  Anne Frank: The Biography is a moving and detailed tribute to a remarkable young woman, and works as the perfect companion to The Diary of a Young Girl.

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2018 Travel: Books Set in France

My final stop so far in 2018 is France, where I am currently enjoying the Easter holidays (thank goodness for scheduling posts ahead of time!).  Here are seven books set in France which I have loved, and which, I feel, round off the week nicely.
5894091. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (2004)
Beginning in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940. Suite Française tells the remarkable story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control. As Parisians flee the city, human folly surfaces in every imaginable way: a wealthy mother searches for sweets in a town without food; a couple is terrified at the thought of losing their jobs, even as their world begins to fall apart. Moving on to a provincial village now occupied by German soldiers, the locals must learn to coexist with the enemy—in their town, their homes, even in their hearts.  When Irène Némirovsky began working on Suite Française, she was already a highly successful writer living in Paris. But she was also a Jew, and in 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she died. For sixty-four years, this novel remained hidden and unknown.
2. The Matchmaker of Perigord by Julia Stuart (2007)
Barber Guillaume Ladoucette has always enjoyed great success in his tiny village in southwestern France, catering to the tonsorial needs of Amour-sur-Belle’s thirty-three inhabitants. But times have changed. His customers have grown older—and balder. Suddenly there is no longer a call for Guillaume’s particular services, and he is forced to make a drastic career change. Since love and companionship are necessary commodities at any age, he becomes Amour-sur-Belle’s official matchmaker and intends to unite hearts as ably as he once cut hair. But alas, Guillaume is not nearly as accomplished an agent of amour, as the disastrous results of his initial attempts amply prove, especially when it comes to arranging his own romantic future.
3. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2006) 6238269
A moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.  We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.   Then there’s Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.  Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.
4. A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse (2009)
Ivan, a one-time world traveler, and Francesca, a ravishing Italian heiress, are the owners of a bookstore that is anything but ordinary. Rebelling against the business of bestsellers and in search of an ideal place where their literary dreams can come true, Ivan and Francesca open a store where the passion for literature is given free rein. Tucked away in a corner of Paris, the store offers its clientele a selection of literary masterpieces chosen by a top-secret committee of likeminded literary connoisseurs. To their amazement, after only a few months, the little dream store proves a success. And that is precisely when their troubles begin. At first, both owners shrug off the anonymous threats that come their way and the venomous comments concerning their store circulating on the Internet, but when three members of the supposedly secret committee are attacked, they decide to call the police. One by one, the pieces of this puzzle fall ominously into place, as it becomes increasingly evident that Ivan and Francesca’s dreams will be answered with pettiness, envy and violence.

158618055. My Life in France by Julia Child (2006)
In her own words, here is the story of Julia Child’s years in France, where she fell in love with French food and found her “true calling.” Filled with the black-and-white photographs that her husband Paul loved to take when he was not battling bureaucrats, as well as family snapshots, this memoir is laced with stories about the French character, particularly in the world of food, and the way of life that Julia embraced so whole-heartedly. Above all, she reveals the kind of spirit and determination, the sheer love of cooking, and the drive to share that with her fellow Americans that made her the extraordinary success she became.

6. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (2007; review here)
Orphan, clock keeper, and thief, Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocks with an eccentric, bookish girl and a bitter old man who runs a toy booth in the station, Hugo’s undercover life, and his most precious secret, are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo’s dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery.
7. Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (1954) 1183167
Bonjour Tristesse scandalised 1950’s France with its portrayal of teenager Cécile, a heroine who rejects conventional notions of love, marriage and family to choose her own sexual freedom.  Cécile leads a hedonistic, frivolous life with her father and his young mistresses. On holiday in the South of France, she is seduced by the sun, sand and her first lover. But when her father decides to remarry, their carefree existence becomes clouded by tragedy.

 

Which of these have you read, and which have taken your fancy?

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2018 Travel: Books Set in Austria

I have been incredibly lucky with my travelling so far this year, and was able to revisit beautiful Austria whilst based in Munich.  I hadn’t been to Salzburg before, but am absolutely in love with the city.  To honour lovely Austria, here are seven of my favourite books set in the country.

1. Let Me Go by Helga Schneider (2001) 1522423
The extraordinary memoir, praised across Europe, of a daughter’s final encounter with her mother, a former SS guard at Auschwitz.  In 1941, in Berlin, Helga Schneider’s mother abandoned her, her younger brother, and her father. Thirty years later– when she saw her mother again for the first time– Schneider discovered the shocking reason: Her mother had joined the Nazi SS and had become a guard in concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbrück, where she was in charge of a “correction” unit and responsible for untold acts of torture.  Nearly three more decades would pass before their second and final reunion, an emotional encounter at a Vienna nursing home, where her mother, then eighty-seven and unrepentant about her past, was ailing. Let Me Go is an extraordinary account of that meeting. Their conversation– which Schneider recounts in spellbinding detail– triggers childhood memories, and she weaves these into her account, powerfully evoking the misery of Nazi and postwar Berlin. Yet it is her internal struggle– a daughter’s sense of obligation colliding with the inescapable horror of what her mother has done– that will stay with readers long after the book has ended.
2. Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi (2001)
‘In Persepolis, heralded by the Los Angeles Times as ‘one of the freshest and most original memoirs of our day,’ Marjane Satrapi dazzled us with her heartrending memoir-in-comic-strips about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Here is the continuation of her fascinating story. In 1984, Marjane flees fundamentalism and the war with Iraq to begin a new life in Vienna. Once there, she faces the trials of adolescence far from her friends and family, and while she soon carves out a place for herself among a group of fellow outsiders, she continues to struggle for a sense of belonging.  Finding that she misses her home more than she can stand, Marjane returns to Iran after graduation. Her difficult homecoming forces her to confront the changes both she and her country have undergone in her absence and her shame at what she perceives as her failure in Austria. Marjane allows her past to weigh heavily on her until she finds some like-minded friends, falls in love, and begins studying art at a university. However, the repression and state-sanctioned chauvinism eventually lead her to question whether she can have a future in Iran.  As funny and poignant as its predecessor, Persepolis 2 is another clear-eyed and searing condemnation of the human cost of fundamentalism.’

175696223. The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal (2013 in English)
The Exiles Return is set in Occupied Vienna in 1954-5. It describes five people who grew up there before the war and have come back to see if they can re-establish the life they have lost.  The novel begins with Professor Kuno Adler, who is Jewish and fled Vienna after the Anschluss (the events of March 1938 when Hitler’s troops marched into Austria). He is returning from New York to try and take up his old life as a research scientist. We realise through his confrontation with officialdom and with the changed fabric of the city (the lime trees are there no longer, it is hard to know who behaved well during the war and who was a Nazi sympathiser) that a refugee who goes back has a very difficult time.  Next we are introduced to a wealthy Greek named Kanakis. Before the war his family had lived in great style with a coach and horses and many servants, and now the 40 year-old Kanakis has come back to try and buy an eighteenth-century hotel particulier, a little palais, in which to live a life of eighteenth-century pleasure. He meets Prince Lorenzo Grein-Lauterbach (who owes more than a little to Tadzio in Death in Venice). Bimbo, as he is known – and the nickname is an accurate one – is a 24 year-old who, because his aristocratic, anti- Nazi parents were murdered by the Germans, was spirited away to the country during the war years and afterwards. He is penniless yet retains an overweening sense of entitlement. Kanakis and he develop a homosexual relationship (a brave thing to write about in the 1950s) and he is kept by his older lover. But he has a sister, Princess Nina, who works in a laboratory, the same one to which Adler returns. She lives modestly in the attic of her family’s former palais, is a devout Catholic, loyal to her brother and the memory of her parents, intelligent and hard-working, but, as she perceives it, is stocky and unattractive. Lastly, there is 18 year-old Marie-Theres, whose parents went to America just before the war; they, and her siblings, have become completely American, but Resi (as she is known, possibly with a deliberate echo of Henry James’s What Maisie Knew) has never fitted in and is déplacée. So she goes back to her Austrian aunt and uncle to see if she can make a life in the home country (from her parents point of view to see if she can be married off) yet here too she is an innocent abroad, unable, to put down roots. Her tragedy is at the core of this moving and evocative book, which explores a very complex and interesting question: if an exile returns, how should he or she behave morally? Some have moral fastidiousness (Adler, Nina), some are ruthlessly on the make (Kanakis, Bimbo), some have no moral code because they have never been educated to acquire one (Resi).
4. Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart (1965)
When Vanessa March arrived in Vienna she knew all about the white Lipizzan stallions at the Spanish Riding School. But she never expected to get involved with them or, indeed, with suspected murder.
5. Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1872) 17738894
When a mysterious carriage crashes outside their castle home in Styria, Austria, Laura and her father agree to take in its injured passenger, a young woman named Carmilla. Delighted to have some company of her own age, Laura is instantly drawn to Carmilla. But as their friendship grows, Carmilla’s countenance changes and she becomes increasingly secretive and volatile. As Carmilla’s moods shift and change, Laura starts to become ill, experiencing fiendish nightmares, her health deteriorating night after night. It is not until she and her father, increasingly concerned for Laura’s well-being, set out on a trip to discover more about the mysterious Carmilla that the terrifying truth reveals itself.
6. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (1929)
Rainer Rilke is considered one of the most significant poets in the German language. The letters in this book were written by Rilke to Franz Kappus, a 19-year-old student at the Military Academy of Vienna. Discouraged by the prospect of military life, Kappus began to send his poetry to the 27-year-old Rilke, seeking both literary criticism and career advice. After Rilke’s death, Kappus assembled and published the letters.  Although the first letter from Kappus asked for critiques of his poetry, Rilke gave him very little during their correspondence. He also discouraged Kappus from reading criticism, advising him to trust his inner judgment. Instead, the majority of the letters address personal issues that Kappus revealed to Rilke; their span is tremendous, ranging from atheism, loneliness, sexuality, and career choices.
61319957. The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig (1982)
The post-office girl is Christine, who looks after her ailing mother and toils in a provincial Austrian post office in the years just after the Great War. One afternoon, as she is dozing among the official forms and stamps, a telegraph arrives addressed to her. It is from her rich aunt, who lives in America.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which, if any, have you added to your list?

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2018 Travel: Books Set in Germany

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

 

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

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