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‘The Conscientious Objector’s Wife’, edited by Kate Macdonald ****

I came across The Conscientious Objector’s Wife: Letters Between Frank and Lucy Sunderland, 1916-1919 whilst browsing a list of Handheld Press’ publications. The book really caught my eye, and after a quick peruse of my local library’s catalogue, I had found and reserved a copy. The Conscientious Objector’s Wife is part of Handheld’s Research collection, and the letters within have been collated and edited by Kate Macdonald, a literary historian, and the company’s director.

Frank and Lucy Sunderland were English pacifists, vegetarians, and ‘fervent supporters of Labour politics and the New Town movement.’ They had moved from London to Letchworth, the first Garden City, to give their three children – Dora, Chrissie, and Morris – a healthier lifestyle. The pair were highly involved in local politics and schemes; in 1917, for instance, Lucy began to run the committee at the town’s Adult School.

In November 1916, the couple were separated for almost three years, when Frank, who refused to be conscripted into the British Army during the First World War, was sentenced to hard labour for being a conscientious objector. He was first incarcerated in Wandsworth Prison in London, before being moved to Bedford. Frank was finally released in April 1919, at which point the letters in this edition stop.

Letchworth, in Hertfordshire, was a town ‘designed for social and environmental harmony’; it was predominantly Quaker, and many were pacifists. Almost all of its inhabitants supported the family, in contrast to the attitudes of their families in London, who viewed Frank’s ‘stance as unpatriotic’. During Frank’s incarceration, Lucy had no option but to support her family financially. She took over Frank’s work in collecting insurance premiums, and also took in sewing, and the odd lodger.

As well as strong contemporary details about what it was like to live in Britain during the First World War, these letters demonstrate ‘how their shared ideology of a socialist pacifism upheld the couple in separation, planning for a better future in a more equal society for all.’ Perhaps one of the saddest parts is the outbreak of scarlet fever which occurred in 1917; although all of their children pulled through, they did have to be hospitalised, and took rather a long time to recuperate. Due to the strict rules regarding how many letters conscientious objectors could receive, Frank did not find out about their illness at the time.

The Conscientious Objector’s Wife includes an introduction written by Macdonald. Here, she sets out her aim to ‘reframe’ histories of the First World War, which so often exclude women. She writes about Frank’s belief ‘in a universal brotherhood of men and women, which gave him the strength of purpose to resist incorporation’ into the Army. Macdonald goes on to comment that the Sunderland family ‘lived very familiar lives, making this… a human story of value to us all.’

The letters themselves are heartfelt and, particularly given the circumstances, they tend to be quite moving. On the 9th of November 1916, when Frank has been held in a barracks awaiting trial, Lucy writes: ‘I feel your spirit always with me. It helps me throughout the loneliness of the night. I haven’t time to feel lonely during the day.’ When Frank is sentenced, she sends the following: ‘I really feel quite at peace because I am sure we are taking the right stand. If our thought is too advanced for the present state of civilization we cannot help that, but must be true to ourselves… but all new teaching must have pioneers and its martyrs although we little dreamt in talking about our future that you would be one.’

There is some joviality here, too; on the 11th of November 1916, Frank writes: ‘You might let me have the interpretation of Morris’s letter as I can’t make head nor tail out of it.’ Like Lucy, he can be incredibly tender too. In February 1917, when his initial sentence is increased by two years, Frank writes: ‘… I assure you of my true Love to you and I feel that though we are parted in the flesh, Love leaps all boundaries of flesh and we are still together. Be brave little woman and I’ll try also, and together we shall gather strength to walk through the maze of sorrow and tribulation. I have written just as I feel knowing that you will be able to read my heart.’

Frank and Lucy wrote freely to one another; some of the letters read almost as streams of consciousness. Each one, however brief, is engaging. The couple recorded what was going on around then, as well as their hopes and dreams for a better future, lived together. Lucy does not shy away from writing of the loneliness which she feels, and the money troubles which often plague her.

The Conscientious Objector’s Wife is an accessible collection, which is worthy of so much attention. I was rather saddened when I went to rate it on Goodreads, and saw that I was the only person who had read it. The letters really give one a feel for how fraught things were during this period. The strength of both Sunderlands, and the way in which they took every difficulty in their stride, is inspiring. I also admired the way in which Frank and Lucy’s letters were turned into a family project, with different generations typing and collating everything which they wrote to one another, and the intention to turn the letters into a published book when the opportunity arose.

I feel grateful that I have been able to read these sometimes very private letters between a loving husband and wife. They reveal much about a still relatively little known group of people, who stood up for their pacifist beliefs. The Conscientious Objector’s Wife provides a window onto an important piece of social history, and I can only hope that more readers pick it up in future.

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‘Love From Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother’, edited by Donald Sturrock ****

I really enjoyed Donald Sturrock’s biography of Roald Dahl, Storyteller, when I read it a couple of years ago.  I was thus very excited to read Love From Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother, which Sturrock edited.  Whilst on yet another (largely unsuccessful) book-buying ban at the time of purchase, Love From Boy looked far too lovely to pass up when I spotted a single copy in Fopp.

From his early childhood, when he was sent away to boarding school, Roald Dahl sent one letter each week to his Norwegian mother, Sofie Magdalene; he continued this habit into adulthood, and ‘unbeknown to Roald, his mother lovingly kept every single one of them.’  Of this practice, Sturrock writes: ‘Sofie was, in many ways, Roald’s first reader.  It was she who encouraged him to tell stories and nourished his desire to fabricate, exaggerate 9781444786286and entertain.’  She clearly had an enormous influence upon him, nurturing him, and facilitating his love for plants and never-ending greed for homemade cakes and food parcels.  Indeed, Dahl later ‘acknowledged her as the source for his own interest in horticulture, cooking, wine, paintings, furniture and animals.  She was the “mater familias”, his constant reference-point and guide.’

In Love From Boy, we are able to ‘witness Roald Dahl turning from a boy to a man, and finally becoming a writer.’  Michael Rosen heralds Sturrock’s effort here, believing that his ‘commentary on the letters is meticulous, thoughtful and kind.’  I found this to be true with Storyteller too; it is so well-informed, and so sympathetic, without feeling overly sentimental, or glossing over any details.  A lot of thought has been put into the accompanying comments in Love From Boy, and into which of the letters should be included here.  As readers, Sturrock has allowed us to step into Sofie’s shoes; ‘we can experience his adventures, recounted in his own unique voice: a delightful and sometimes disconcerting mixture of honesty, humour, earthiness and fantasy.’

Literary Review captures the spirit of these letters wonderfully, writing that this is: ‘An entertaining and eye-opening collection…  it is his younger self that is captured here – jaunty and anarchic, yet a recognisable forerunner of that more subtly anarchic, stooping, cardiganed figure who was the world-famous author, gazing out on the world from his garden shed with watery, mischievous eyes.’  The correspondence of authors, from my experience of reading quite a few collections, often shows a different side to them entirely.  Fans of Dahl’s fun and quirky children’s books may be surprised at how much heartbreak he had in his life, and these letters do show that he had a very serious side, contrary to that which he revealed in much of his writing.

The cache of more than 600 letters which Sturrock had to choose from for this collection end two years before Sofie’s death.  Roald was bequeathed the letters, all of which had been kept in their original envelopes, after her death in 1967.  Unfortunately, none of Sofie’s letters to Roald have been recovered, and so her part in proceedings, says Sturrock, is ‘more mysterious’.  Evidently so aware of Dahl’s life and feelings, he points out that many elements and emotions were left out of these letters entirely.  He says that they are ‘interesting for what they do not say.  They seldom convey self-pity or unhappiness…  In that situation [of school-imposed censorship in his early correspondence], admitting vulnerability was treated with scorn and derision.’  There is a sense throughout of Dahl trying to protect his mother, putting a gloss on the harder things which he experiences so as not to worry her; an example of this is when he was horrendously bullied at school, but just put it down to boyish high-jinx in his letters home.

Sturrock has chosen to split these ‘remarkable’ letters into seven main sections, spanning specific periods between 1925 and 1965.  The letters themselves were sent to Sofie from Weston-Super-Mare and Kenya, from Egypt and Texas, from Iraq and Canada.  They detail Dahl’s experiences with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, and the various postings he was given, many of which he had to be rather secretive about.  The approach which Sturrock has made here is wonderful; he provides an index of locations, along with corresponding symbols for each, and has mapped them too.

Love From Boy is so nicely laid out, and include copies of Dahl’s original letters at times.  The introductions to each section are heartfelt; Sturrock helps to contextualise the letters, as well as adding thoughtful comments and biographical details.  In the second section, for example, when Dahl is at his second boarding school, Sturrock says: ‘Whether tobogganing down a hill, rioting on a train, chucking powder around his dormitory, or climbing illicitly up the tower of Repton Church, the letters convey an exultant and infectious delight in the adventures of childhood, and a sense that these simple, unsophisticated pleasures can put misery and adversity to flight.’

Some of what Dahl recounts in his letters is so matter-of-fact that it becomes comical.  In January 1927, at the age of ten, for instance, he writes: ‘I have not eaten any of what you gave me accept [sic] one little chocolate, and on Bristol Station Hoggart was sick, and when I looked at it I was sick but now I am quite all right.’  The way in which he writes is often charming and warmhearted, and his vocabulary very of its time; he speaks of a ‘topping lecture’, of a schoolmaster who has ‘got a long hanging ginger moustache, and is quite fat’, and asks, in 1927, ‘How much are the monkeys at Harrods?  It would be rather nice to have one.’  Later, hilarious satirical comments are made about political figures, the likes of Hitler and Goebbels.  When living in Dar es Salaam in 1939, Dahl writes: ‘It’s pleasant lying back and listening and at the same time watching the antics of Hitler and Mussolini who are invariably on the ceiling catching flies and mosquitoes.  Perhaps I should explain that Hitler and Mussolini are 2 lizards which live in our sitting room.’

Love From Boy is such an endearing collection, and is a lovely book for any fan of Dahl’s to read.  Sturrock’s selections give an insight both into Dahl’s life and his relationship with his mother, and allow readers to chart his changing loves and interests as time passes.  Love From Boy is, too, a fantastic piece of social and biographical history, which is both entertaining and touching from start to finish.  The letters here are full of character, as one would expect, and are a true delight to read.

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One From the Archive: ‘Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda’, edited by Jackson R. Bryer and Cathy W. Barks *****

Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda is one of the books which I have most looked forward to reading – ever, I think. I spotted it quite by chance in Cambridge Central Library whilst I was browsing the biography section, and may have given a tiny squeal of joy before snapping it up. To add to my excitement, it is also the favourite book of one of my absolute favourite musicians, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. 9780747566014

The letters in Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda have never before been published in the same volume. The informative preface which the editors of the book, Jackson R. Bryer and Cathy W. Bates have penned, states the way in which they have chosen to adopt a chronological approach to present the correspondence of the husband and wife. This is certainly my preferred form for letter collections and works of non-fiction, and it has been used to great effect here.

Elements of biography can be found before each letter, and it is clear that Bryer and Bates have greatly respected the material which they have presented in the volume. So much thought has been put into how the letters are presented, and each section has a nicely written introduction, which sets out the point at which the lives of the Fitzgeralds were in each particular period. Eleanor Lanahan, the granddaughter of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, has written the introduction to Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda, and its inclusion feels so very fitting for a number of reasons. Her words are touching, and it is pleasing that she sets such stock by the work of her grandparents.

Throughout, I felt privileged to be able to read the correspondence of Scott and Zelda. Their letters to one another, even in the more troubled years of their marriage, are just darling. The prose is beautiful, the similes and metaphors gorgeous, and the spontaneity in each and every letter is marvellous. What characters both Scott and Zelda were, and how lucky we are as readers to be able to read their most private of works. I admire the way in which the editors have kept the original spellings and punctuation in the letters. The photographs and facsimiles of letters are a lovely addition to the text too.

The story of Scott and Zelda is often very sad, with Zelda being hospitalised for mental illness during the later years of her life, and Scott’s alcoholism, but their love is always there, no matter which situations they may find themselves in. Love is the enduring factor here, in all of its many forms.

Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda is a fascinating collection of correspondence, which continually exemplifies the depths of Scott and Zelda’s love for one another. Many of the letters here were penned by Zelda, and she writes beautifully. Some of the sentences which she crafts are breathtaking and heartfelt, such as this, written in November 1931:

“… if you will come back I will make the jasmine bloom and all the trees come out in flower and we will eat clouds for des[s]ert[,] bathe in the foam of the rain – and I will let you play with my pistol and you can win every golf game and I will make you a new suit from a blue hydrangea bush and shoes from pecan-shells and I’ll sew you a belt from leaves like maps of the world and you can always be the one that’s perfect.”

Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda comes highly recommended, and it is certainly a book which I will be purchasing my own copy of in future, so that I can read it all over again.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of William Maxwell and Eudora Welty’, edited by Suzanne Mars

First published in December 2016.

What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell is one of my most anticipated books – well, ever.  Maxwell is one of my favourite writers (and it pains me that he is so little known), and I very much admire Welty.  Regardless, I knew little about them as individuals, so when I spotted this volume, I immediately put it at the top of my birthday list. 97805477503231

Marrs’ introduction is wonderful.  She writes with such passion, and compassion, for her subjects.  From the very beginning, I knew that I would have loved to meet both of those whom Marrs clearly deeply admires.  Welty was an incredibly sassy, shrewd woman; of Jane Austen’s house, she wrote that it ‘looks big, but is really small.  The opposite of her novels.’  Bill, who struck up a wondrous friendship with her, was an incredibly humble, humane man, filled with a myriad of thoughts, and devoted to all of those around him.

It goes without saying that both are incredible writers.  Learning about the process of their craft was fascinating enough, but getting to know the pair as individuals was far more rewarding.  That rare thing is so evident here; that enduring friendship, built upon mutual respect, which was all the more cherished as the two lived far from one another (Maxwell in New York, and Welty in Mississippi).  They could see one another only at long intervals, but in some ways, both found this beneficial; the therapeutic motion of penning (semi-) regular letters to one another lasted for decades, and much was learnt about the other in consequence.

What There Is To Say We Have Said is a stunning read, and I was a little sad when I came to its end.  Throughout, one is nudged to remember just how important communication is (and just how much the majority of us in the modern world almost instantaneous communication for granted), and how beautiful the art of letter writing.  There is not a single dull sentence in this 450-page long volume, and if it had been twice as long, I would have been thrilled.

I could type out quotes at length here, but I shall leave you, dear reader, with the ones which really touched me:
– Maxwell to Welty: ‘There are enough similarities in our two childhoods to make me feel […] that they grew up on a tandem bicycle.’
– Maxwell to Welty, on the publication of one of her works: ‘But I wanted to write to you now, because when a book first comes out, it is really like a party, and when I am invited to a party, I like to come early.’

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A Wishlist from The Strand

The Strand Bookstore in New York City is my favourite bookshop in the world.  I have only visited once, but I am hoping to be able to go again in no more than a few years time.  I am very lucky to be heading off to the States next month, but will be visiting Florida, so no trips up to Manhattan for me.  I’m just hoping that there’s a similar treasure trove somewhere in Miami!  Regardless, The Strand has a wonderful website, from which I have compiled a wishlist of wonderful looking books.

Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating by Charles Spence 9780241270080
‘Why do we consume 35% more food when eating with one more person, and 75% more when with three? Why are 27% of drinks bought on aeroplanes tomato juice? How are chefs and companies planning to transform our dining experiences, and what can we learn from their cutting-edge insights to make memorable meals at home? These are just some of the ingredients of Gastrophysics, in which the pioneering Oxford professor Charles Spence shows how our senses link up in the most extraordinary ways, and reveals the importance of all the “off-the-plate” elements of a meal: the weight of cutlery, the colour of the plate (his lab showed that red is associated with sweetness – we perceive salty popcorn as tasting sweet when served in a red bowl), the background music and much more. Whether dining alone or at a dinner party, on a plane or in front of the TV, he reveals how to understand what we’re tasting and influence what others experience. Meal-times will genuinely never be the same again.’

 

9780141981772Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
‘Claudia Rankine’s bold new book recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media. Some of these encounters are slights, seeming slips of the tongue, and some are intentional offensives in the classroom, at the supermarket, at home, on the tennis court with Serena Williams and the soccer field with Zinedine Zidane, online, on TV—everywhere, all the time. The accumulative stresses come to bear on a person’s ability to speak, perform, and stay alive. Our addressability is tied to the state of our belonging, Rankine argues, as are our assumptions and expectations of citizenship. In essay, image, and poetry, Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in our contemporary, often named “post-race” society.’

 

Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems by Tom Hennen 9781556594045-1-zoom
‘In his introduction, Jim Harrison tellingly likens Hennen’s work to that of former poet laureate Ted Kooser. Hennen writes simply and affectingly of rural life in the heartlands, where “Night doesn’t fall/ It rises out of low spots.” He’s been publishing since 1974 but is receiving national distribution only now; many readers will appreciate this evocation of a life not as commonly portrayed in contemporary verse.’

 

0142004952-1-zoomHow I Became Stupid by Martin Page
‘Antoine is too smart for his own good-or so he thinks. He spends his days considering life rather than actually living it. He sees other people who seem perfectly happy in their ignorance, and he wants to be one of them. To achieve this end, Antoine decides that he needs to become stupid and tries various methods without success. Then his doctor prescribes Happyzac, which changes Antoine’s life. He really does “get stupid,” accidentally earns millions, indulges himself, and generally enjoys being one of the masses. Then, with his company’s collapse, the bubble bursts. Antoine returns to an intelligent life when he meets a like-minded girl in the park. Page’s first novel deftly combines biting satire and hilarious slapstick. His characters are highly introspective misfits, and the story makes for insightful commentary on life in the “developed” world.’

 

The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke 1594485666-1-zoom
‘Much like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) and Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay (2008), O’Rourke makes fine use of a strong voice and hyperawareness to recount a terribly painful tale. The author spares the reader no detail, revealing the deconstruction of a human being in the simplest terms imaginable. “I was stunned by the way my mother’s body was being taken to pieces,” she writes, “how each new week brought a new failure, how surreal the disintegration of a body was.” While there is no dearth of grief memoirs, O’Rourke’s candor allows her work to far transcend the imitators. She is fully conscious of the trappings of her genre, often admitting, “I know this may sound melodramatic,” and remaining wholly dedicated to combating the convenience of cliche, even acknowledging when she uses it. While the death of O’Rourke’s mother takes place midway through the book, her presence lingers. The author provides many seemingly insignificant details that provide a much-needed humanizing effect, sparing the victim from functioning as little more than a stand-in for her illness. Equally successful is O’Rourke’s ability to navigate beyond the realm of sentimentality, much preferring to render the drama with firm-lipped frankness.’

 

0822963310-1-zoomCatalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is a sustained meditation on that which goes away—loved ones, the seasons, the earth as we know it—that tries to find solace in the processes of the garden and the orchard. That is, this is a book that studies the wisdom of the garden and orchard, those places where all—death, sorrow, loss—is converted into what might, with patience, nourish us.’

 

Letters, Summer 1926 by Boris PasternakMarina Tsvetaeva and Rainer Maria Rilke 9780940322714
‘The summer of 1926 was a time of trouble and uncertainty for each of the poets whose letters appear here. Boris Pasternak was in Moscow, trying to come to terms with the new Bolshevik regime. Marina Tsvetayeva, exiled from the Soviet Union to France with her husband and two children, was struggling desperately to get by. Rainer Maria Rilke, in Switzerland, was dying. Chance put them in touch with one another, and before long they found themselves engaged in a complicated correspondence in which questions of art and love were ever more deeply implicated, and where every aspect of life and work was discussed with passionate intensity.’

Have you read any of these?  Have any piqued your interest?  Which is your favourite worldwide bookshop?

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‘What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell’, edited by Suzanne Marrs *****

What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell is one of my most anticipated books – well, ever.  Maxwell is one of my favourite writers (and it pains me that he is so little known), and I very much admire Welty.  Regardless, I knew little about them as individuals, so when I spotted this volume, I immediately put it at the top of my birthday list. 97805477503231

Marrs’ introduction is wonderful.  She writes with such passion, and compassion, for her subjects.  From the very beginning, I knew that I would have loved to meet both of those whom Marrs clearly deeply admires.  Welty was an incredibly sassy, shrewd woman; of Jane Austen’s house, she wrote that it ‘looks big, but is really small.  The opposite of her novels.’  Bill, who struck up a wondrous friendship with her, was an incredibly humble, humane man, filled with a myriad of thoughts, and devoted to all of those around him.

It goes without saying that both are incredible writers.  Learning about the process of their craft was fascinating enough, but getting to know the pair as individuals was far more rewarding.  That rare thing is so evident here; that enduring friendship, built upon mutual respect, which was all the more cherished as the two lived far from one another (Maxwell in New York, and Welty in Mississippi).  They could see one another only at long intervals, but in some ways, both found this beneficial; the therapeutic motion of penning (semi-) regular letters to one another lasted for decades, and much was learnt about the other in consequence.

What There Is To Say We Have Said is a stunning read, and I was a little sad when I came to its end.  Throughout, one is nudged to remember just how important communication is (and just how much the majority of us in the modern world almost instantaneous communication for granted), and how beautiful the art of letter writing.  There is not a single dull sentence in this 450-page long volume, and if it had been twice as long, I would have been thrilled.

I could type out quotes at length here, but I shall leave you, dear reader, with the ones which really touched me:
– Maxwell to Welty: ‘There are enough similarities in our two childhoods to make me feel […] that they grew up on a tandem bicycle.’
– Maxwell to Welty, on the publication of one of her works: ‘But I wanted to write to you now, because when a book first comes out, it is really like a party, and when I am invited to a party, I like to come early.’

Purchase from The Book Depository

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One From the Archive: ‘A Hilltop on the Marne: An American’s Letters from War-Torn France’ by Mildred Aldrich ****

First published in May 2014.

A Hilltop on the Marne, which was first published in 1916, presents a far-reaching account of Mildred Aldrich’s experiences during the First World War.  Aldrich, a retired American journalist who worked for several papers in the Boston area before moving to France in 1898, had just moved to an idyllic hamlet in France’s Marne Valley before World War One was declared.  In Huiry, a ‘little hamlet less than thirty miles from Paris’, she found herself adjusting to life in wartime, volunteering such services as hosting tea for and providing water to local forces.  Her farmhouse soon became ‘a safe port in a storm for the various troops stationed in the village’. 

Aldrich’s first letter in the volume is dated the 3rd of June 1914, and her correspondence goes through to the end of the war.  We do not know who she writes to, and as none of her letters carry her signature or anything of the sort, A Hilltop on the Marne feels more like a diary in consequence.  She urges her correspondent, who is evidently trying to coerce her into returning ‘home’ to the United States, to allow her to be content.  In her first letter, she states, quite frankly: ‘I did not decide to come away into a little corner in the country, in this land in which I was not born, without looking at the move from all angles.  Be sure that I know what I am doing, and I have found the place where I can do it’.  She goes on to show how headstrong she is in her decision making, writing in August 1914: ‘I have your cable asking me to come “home” as you call it.  Alas, my home is where my books are – they are here.  Thanks all the same’.

Throughout A Hilltop on the Marne, Aldrich writes beautifully; each letter is long and has been penned with such care.  Through her words, one gets the impression that she was an incredibly warm and witty woman, who valued honesty above all else.  Sincerity weaves itself into each sentence which she crafts, and it feels throughout as though her utmost wish is for her reader to understand the things which she does, and the choices which she makes.  We learn of such things as the layout of her home, the way in which she fills her days, the history of the Marne region, and the characters who live in the hamlet of Huiry.  A Hilltop on the Marne is as rich as a novel in some respects, filled with such a wealth of detail as it is.

Aldrich evokes small-town life in France marvellously.   When war begins and she is able to meet some of the soldiers stationed in her area, she begins to reflect upon what battle means for the men in the region, and in France as a whole: ‘It is not the marching into battle of an army that has chosen soldiering.  It is the marching out of all the people – of every temperament – the rich, the poor, the timid and the bold, the sensitive and the hardened, the ignorant and the scholar – all men, because they happen to be males, called on not only to cry, “Vive la France”, but to see to it that she does live if dying for her can keep her alive.  It’s a compelling idea, isn’t it?’  She goes on to write: ‘I have lived among these people, loved them and believed in them, even when their politics annoyed me’.  Aldrich exemplifies the way in which her community carries on regardless, women taking over the ‘male’ tasks like baking bread and seeing to crops.  She tells of preparations for battle, the lack of news which reaches the hamlet, the unreliability of the postal service, refugees being sent into France from Belgium, and how wounded soldiers are treated.  She touches upon the requisition of weapons, evacuations of entire French towns, and the British cutting telegraph wires.  In this way, Aldrich has presented a far-reaching account of life in wartime from a most interesting perspective.

One of the wonderful things about A Hilltop on the Marne is its versatility; it can be dipped in and out of, or read all in one go.  It is an important work of non-fiction, particularly in this, the centenary year of World War One’s beginning.  It is a chronicle of war in a rural hamlet, which is sure to both charm its readers, and make them think.

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Reading the World: Holland

I used to use my Reading the World project as a BookTube feature, but at present, I have very little time to film, and am very behind schedule with it.  I thought that instead of forcing myself to film and edit, it would be easier to transition the project over to the blog.

For each country or region which I write about, I will give at least five books as recommendations, along with the official blurbs.  I must apologise for the lack of personal details as to why I selected each book going forward, but I am up against time constraints due to my Master’s.  I hope you can understand, and enjoy the recommendations!

We kick off with Holland, or The Netherlands, dependent on what you call it.

1. An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum, 1941-43 by Etty Hillesum (1999)
‘Etty Hillesum (1914-43) lived in Amsterdam, like Anne Frank, and like her she kept a diary. ‘All the writings she left behind,’ writes Eva Hoffman in her Preface to this edition of her diaries and letters, ‘were composed in the shadow of the Holocaust, but they resist being read primarily in its dark light. Rather, their abiding interest lies in the light- filled mind that pervades them and in the astonishing internal journey they chart. Etty’s pilgrimage grew out of the intimate experience of an intellectual young woman – it was idiosyncratic, individual, and recognisably modern… The private person who revealed herself in her diary was impassioned, erotically volatile, restless… Yet she had the kind of genius for introspection that converts symptoms into significance and joins self-examination to philosophical investigation… In the last stages of her amazing and moving journey, Etty seemed to attain that peace which passeth understanding… Finally, however, the violence and brutality she saw all around her overwhelmed even her capacity to understand… But by knowing and feeling so deeply and fully, an unknown young woman became one of the most exceptional and truest witnesses of the devastation through which she lived.”

2. Tales from the Secret Annex by Anne Frank 9780553586381
(2003)
‘The candid, poignant, unforgettable writing of the young girl whose own life story has become an everlasting source of courage and inspiration. Hiding from the Nazis in the Secret Annex of an old office building in Amsterdam, a thirteen-year-old girl named Anne Frank became a writer. The now famous diary of her private life and thoughts reveals only part of Anne s story, however. This book rounds out the portrait of this remarkable and talented young author. Newly translated, complete, and restored to the original order in which Anne herself wrote them in her notebook, Tales from the Secret Annex is a collection of Anne Frank s lesser-known writings: short stories, fables, personal reminiscences, and an unfinished novel, Cady s Life.”

3. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown and Company, 2013) (* Partially set in Holland)
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
‘”The Goldfinch” is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind….Donna Tartt has delivered an extraordinary work of fiction.”–Stephen King, “The New York Times Book Review” Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his longing for his mother, he clings to the one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art. As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love–and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle. The Goldfinch is a mesmerizing, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.’

  1. 9781847398222
    4. Anne Frank Remembered by Miep Gies and Alison Leslie Gold (Simon & Schuster Ltd., 2009)
    ‘For the millions moved by Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, here is Miep Gies’s own astonishing story. For more than two years, Miep and her husband helped hide the Franks from the Nazis. Like thousands of unsung heroes of the Holocaust, they risked their lives every day to bring food, news, and emotional support to its victims. From her remarkable childhood as a World War I refugee to the moment she places a small, red-orange-checkered diary — Anne’s legacy — into Otto Frank’s hands, Miep Gies remembers her days with simple honesty and shattering clarity. Each page rings with courage and heartbreaking beauty.’5. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (HarperCollins, 1999)
    ’17th Century Holland. When Griet becomes a maid in the household of Johannes Vermeer in the town of Delft, she thinks she knows her role: housework, laundry and the care of his six children. But as she becomes part of his world and his work, their growing intimacy spreads tension and deception in the ordered household and, as the scandal seeps out, into the town beyond. Tracy Chevalier’s extraordinary historical novel on the corruption of innocence and the price of genius is a contemporary classic perfect for fans of Sarah Dunant and Philippa Gregory.’

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2

Classics Club #64: ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ by Rainer Maria Rilke ****

I borrowed the sixty-fourth book on my Classics Club list from the wonderful Poetry Library in London’s Southbank Centre.  The Harvard University Press edition which I was fortunate enough to borrow is a slim volume, running to just 87 relatively small pages, and was both translated and introduced by Mark Harman.

I am sure that the majority of you will already know the premise of Letters to a Young Poet, and if not, will be able to guess at it from the title alone.  To clarify, however, in 1902, ‘a nineteen-year-old aspiring poet named Franz Kappus wrote to Rilke, then twenty-six, seeking advice on his poetry’.  The two had similar backgrounds and, ‘touched by the innocence and forthrightness of the student, Rilke responded to Kappus’ letter and began an intermittent correspondence that would last until 1908′.  This volume collects the ten letters which Rilke penned.  The letters which were written from Kappus to Rilke have sadly never appeared in print, and there is speculation as to whether they were lost in Rilke’s many moves between France, Italy, Germany, and Scandinavia.

Throughout, says the blurb, ‘Rilke offers unguarded thoughts on such diverse subjects as creativity, solitude, self-reliance, living with uncertainty, the shallowness of irony, the uselessness of criticism, career choices, sex, love, God, and art.  Letters to a Young Poet is, finally, a life manual.  Art, Rilke tells the young poet in his final letter to him, is only another way of living’.  Harman reiterates this sentiment within his introduction, writing: ‘The voice we overhear [in Rilke’s letters] is by turns confident, self-questioning, concerned, self-absorbed, open-minded, didactic, genuine, and affected’.

In 1929, Kappus wrote a lovely little introduction to the volume: ‘What is important are the ten letters which follow, important for learning about the world in which Rainer Maria Rilke lived and created, and important also for many of those growing and changing today and tomorrow.  And whenever one who is great and unique speaks, those who are inferior should fall silent’.  Rilke’s beautiful correspondence ensues.  In the first letter, he writes the following about the importance of personal art: ‘There’s only one way to proceed.  Go inside yourself.  Explore the reason that compels you to write; test whether it stretches its roots into the deepest part of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would have to die if the opportunity to write were withheld from you’.

Letters to a Young Poet is rather profound, and such thought has been given to its translation.  Rilke’s letters present such interesting ideas, particularly about creativity, and those whom we perceive to be the judges of our art.  His replies to Kappus’ original letters are kind, measured, and honest, and there is a strong sense of contemplation which runs through them all.  If you have any inclination whatsoever toward poetry, Letters to a Young Poet is a must.

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