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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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‘The Secret Life of Cows’ by Rosamund Young ***

9780571336777I had heard a lot about Rosamund Young’s The Secret Life of Cows, first published in 2003 and recently reissued, and was keen to get my hands on a copy.  I love nature writing, but have never read anything cow-specific before, and am always ready to learn new things.  Lydia Davis calls this slim book, which runs to less than 140 pages, ‘absorbing, moving, and compulsively readable’, and Philip Callow believes that it is ‘a little masterpiece of animal sentience.’  Other reviews have been rather more mixed, but when I spotted the lovely navy hardback edition in Fopp, I picked myself up a copy.

The blurb states that cows ‘are as varied as people.  They can be highly intelligent or slow to understand, vain, considerate, proud, shy or inventive.’  The book is described as ‘an affectionate record of a hitherto secret world’.  Young elaborates upon this in her introduction, where she writes: ‘If you know animals as individuals you notice how often older brothers are kind to younger ones, how sisters seek or avoid each other’s company, and which families always get together at night to sleep and which never do so.’

The Faber reissue comes with a very short foreword written by Alan Bennett.  He comments: ‘It’s a delightful book, though insofar as it reveals that cows (and indeed sheep and even hens) have far more awareness and know-how than they have ever been given credit for, it could also be thought deeply depressing, as it means entirely revising one’s view of the world.’  He goes on to add: ‘It’s a book that alters the way one sees things and passing a field of cows nowadays I find myself wondering about their friendships and their outlook, notions that before reading Young’s book I would have thought comical, even daft.’

Author Rosamund Young runs Kite’s Nest Farm, on the edge of the Cotswolds, with her brother and partner.  She has lived on the farm since her childhood, and has been observing the animals ever since.  Her ethos is admirable; they let the cows decide when they wish to finish weaning, allow them to live in mixed generational groups to give the younger members the opportunity to learn from their elders, and give the animals constant access to food and water.  Young writes: ‘We decided that the animals themselves are by far the most qualified individuals to make decisions about their own welfare and it is the decisions they make, as well as many other occurrences both humdrum and extraordinary, that I have observed, learned from and written down here.’  Young then goes on to elaborate further, explaining that she and her colleagues ‘have tried on this farm to create an environment that allows all of the animals the freedom to communicate with or dissociate themselves from us as they choose.’ Throughout, she makes highly thoughtful points; for instance: ‘Just because we are not clever enough to notice the differences between individual spiders or butterflies, yellowhammers or cows is not a reason for presuming that there are none.’

The Secret Life of Cows is a mixture of musings about ethical farming, things which the owners of Kite’s Nest have implemented to better the welfare of their animals, and anecdotes about particular animals.  Some of these are amusing, and others quite sweet.  For instance, we meet Meg, a calf who learns to climb some very steep steps so that she can spend the night in the granary, ‘away from mud and draughts and bullying’.  Meg then teaches two of her fellow calves how to climb the stairs too.  There is Alice, who is fond of hide and seek.  Young writes: ‘She would do her best to hide behind a walnut tree but of course she was too big and as soon as she realised I had seen her she would gallop off again and hide behind the next one, and so on until we reached the cow pen.’

The book opens, rather charmingly I thought, with a cow family tree.  This by no means covers every cow whom Young writes about, but it does give an idea of the number of generations who live on the farm.  Some lovely details have been included here; for instance, Bonnet is ‘passionate about apples’, Blue Devil is ‘remarkably bossy’, and the Duke of York drinks water like a cat.  There is a brief section at the end of the book which includes twenty facts which Young feels one should know about cows, hens, pigs, and sheep respectively.

The structure of the book is split into small sections, sometimes only a paragraph or two long, rather than into distinct chapters.  Young writes in her introduction that she believes such a structure gives a more interlinking feel to the anecdotes she presents, but I felt as though it became a little jumbled in places.   She will mention a particular cow, and then go on to talk about another one from another line, before coming back to the original cow pages later.  I would have preferred more of an organised structure, and feel as though this would have suited the book better, as well as making it easier to follow.  As it stands, The Secret Life of Cows feels a little bitty, and it is unfortunate rather too brief.

I read the entirety of The Secret Life of Cows in one go, but I feel, upon reflection, that it would be a better choice to dip in and out of it.  Young’s writing is gentle and undemanding, but some of the anecdotes do feel a touch repetitive in places.  I did like the sense of anthropomorphism which Young lent to her cows, and I do feel as though I learnt quite a few things about the intelligence and empathy of cows – for example, the grieving process which they go through when a member of their herd dies or is taken away, and the way in which poorly cows only want to eat willow bark for its aspirin properties.  They are incredibly intelligent, independent animals, who know how to ask for help when they need it, and can display such a range of emotions.07

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‘Between the World and Me’ by Ta-Nahesi Coates ****

Ta-Nahesi Coates’ books have been on my radar for such a long time, and it seemed fitting to select Between the World and Me as my first foray into his work.  Toni Morrison has deemed the book ‘required reading’, and says that Coates has ‘filled the void that plagued me after James Baldwin died’ – high praise indeed.

25489625._sy475_Between the World and Me, which was first published in 2015, is a letter to Coates’ teenage son.  He wrote to his son in his fifteenth year, when violent crimes against Black people included the drive-by murder of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, and the murder of John Crawford, who was shot whilst browsing in a department store.  David Remnick in the New Yorker writes that throughout, Coates counsels his son ‘on the history of American violence against the black body, the young African-American’s extreme vulnerability to wrongful arrest, police violence, and disproportionate incarceration.’  Kirkus Reviews considers the book a ‘powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future’.

From the outset, Coates writes about the inherent racism in American society: ‘This leads us to another equally important ideal, one that Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world.  Racism – the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them – inevitably follows from this inalterable condition.’

Coates is honest and open about the things which happened to him during his childhood and teenage years in Maryland.  He speaks of the fear which was all around him in his Black community whilst he was growing up: ‘When I was your age, the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.’  In his neighbourhood, he says: ‘Everyone had lost a child, somehow, to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to guns.’

The awareness which Coates describes having during his childhood is quite astonishing; he had to take into account for everything and everyone around him, and continually work out the potential dangers.  He writes: ‘… each day, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with…  the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at…  all of which is to say that I practiced the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body.’  He talks, too, of the Catch-22 situation in which he found himself: ‘Not being violent enough could cost me my body.  Being too violent could cost me my body.  We could not get out.’

Coates repeatedly questions himself, and his place within society, particularly when examining the way he was as a young man: ‘I am black, and have been plundered and have lost my body.  But perhaps I too had the capacity for plunder, maybe I would take another human’s body to confirm myself in a community.  Perhaps I already had.  Hate gives identity.’

Coates’ prose is rich, and often chilling.  For instance, he addresses Black history in America as the ‘elevation of the belief in being white… [was achieved] through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.’  There is a constant awareness of the societal dangers which face his son, much of the violence which has been carried through history still prevailing: ‘And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body.’

Alongside political content, and the history of Black people in the United States, he continually addresses his son, offering both matter-of-fact comments and advice.  Along with the warnings, to protect his body and his sense of self, Coates also offers his son hope, in the most touching of ways: ‘What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.’

The issues explored within Between the World and Me are urgent and vital.  It is focused on American society specifically, but what it addresses is prevalent in so many societies all over the world.  The book is powerful and profound, and utterly haunting.  I have not stopped thinking about it since I read it, two weeks after George Floyd was brutally murdered, and at the same time as watching the chilling ‘When They See Us’ on Netflix.  I found Between the World and Me a relatively brief but wholly illuminating memoir, which I urge everyone to pick up.

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‘Turning: Lessons from Swimming Berlin’s Lakes’ by Jessica J. Lee ****

I picked up Canadian author Jessica J. Lee’s debut work, Turning: Lessons from Swimming Berlin’s Lakes during a lovely warm summer’s day, and it turned out to be the perfect choice.  Since very much enjoying Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, which is partially a memoir of outdoor swimming, I have been keen to pick up more memoirs along the same theme.  The Times Literary Supplement calls Turning ‘a brilliant debut’, and the New Statesman notes that it is ‘filled with a wonderful melancholy as she swims through lakes laden with dark histories.’

9780349008332Although I chose to read this during the summer, it is seasonally appropriate all year round, as Lee swims ‘through all four seasons.  For her, it is the thrill of a still, turquoise lake, of cracking the ice before submerging, of cool, fresh, spring swimming, of floating under blue skies – of facing past fears of near drowning and of breaking free.’ Turning has been split into four sections which correspond to the seasons, and these are formed by separate chapters, which have lovely emotive titles like ‘under ice’, ‘out of air’, and ‘borderland’.

In this manner, Lee charts an entire year, and over fifty lakes, which she swims in around the city of Berlin.  She moved there as part of her doctoral research, and found such worth in outdoor swimming.  Each of Lee’s chosen lakes has been listed at the beginning of the book, along with a series of illustrated maps which show where they can be found.  Her quest, she explains, has been well planned out; an Excel spreadsheet chronicles a catalogue of lakes, along with instructions of how to get to them, and the best time of year to go.

Lee decided to take up outdoor swimming to try and help with her mental health.  Living in a city on a different continent from most of her friends and all of her family began to take its toll on her, and she reflects: ‘… as I was retreating from the deep end of depression, I surfaced with the bizarre notion that the solution to my problems lay in swimming…  [In Berlin] Hundreds of spots of blue multiplied exponentially as the city lines crept into the surrounding land.  These lakes and rivers – their intricate weave of water laid on to the flat North German Plain by retreating glaciers in the last ice-age – had worked a tiny hook into my heart, and I could do nothing for it but swim.’  She goes on to explain her hopes for her new pursuit: ‘Swimming would be a way of staying with my fears, a way of staying in place.  Above all, I sought to find some balance in it.’

Alongside Lee’s personal experience of swimming is research about ‘how the lake came to be in the landscape, or how its seasonal changes take place’, as well as memories from her past.  At first, these memories all revolve around the water, but she begins to open up about relationships as Turning moves further on.  She discusses the displacement and loneliness which she feels, having moved around a lot, and being far away from her family.  She is continually aware that her time in Berlin is temporary, but this does gently encourage her to make decisions about her future which she feels are for the best.  Swimming gives her a place, a purpose: ‘In the middle of the lake, I’m completely present.  I’m no longer afraid to be alone.  I’ve conditioned myself to the lake, to the cold, to the pain of it.  I can hold it.  I’ve made it mine.’

The prose used at the beginning of the prologue, in which Lee is describing the feeling of being in the water, is sensuous: ‘It slips over me like cool silk.  The intimacy of touch uninhibited, rising around my legs, over my waist, my breasts, up to my collarbone.  When I throw back my head and relax, the lake runs in my ears.  The sound of it is a muffled roar, the vibration of the body amplified by water, every sound felt as if in slow motion.’  In this manner, Lee’s narrative throughout the memoir has such glorious description within it.  She employs this particularly when discovering a new lake, or providing comparisons of swimming in distinct seasons.  She writes: ‘You come ton know the consistent feel of spring and the stagnant warmth at the top of a summer lake.  When the water clears in the autumn, you feel it: the lake feels cleaner on your arms, less like velvet and more like cut glass.  And then winter comes, sharper than ever.  Swimming year-round means greeting the lake’s changes.’  Her descriptions have such a vivacity to them: ‘… I dive off the dock’s edge into the amulet blue, feeling so wholly present in the water that I forget I’m alone, and climb out and ump off again and again until I’m exhausted.’

Alongside her musings on swimming in Berlin, Lee reflects on other lakes which she has swum in.  Of the Ladies’ Pond at Hampstead Heath, for instance, she writes: ‘I began to swim there alone, surrounded by women who seemed stronger than me.  I wanted to be like them: sturdy, no-nonsense, unsentimental.  The pond was opaque and slipped around my body thickly, the water a felted brown.  It was cold and open: a bright circle of relief in the middle of the trees.  I swam out into its centre again and again, out towards the willow and then back towards the dock.  I swam to the lane rope at its farthest edge, watching the cormorants glide through the deep.  The movement was an anaesthetic.’

Part-memoir, part-musing on nature, I cannot recommend Turning enough.  Lee sees each new lake as a gift, which I found wonderful; she never takes her swimming for granted, and even when it does not quite go to plan, there is always a positive that she can find in getting into the water.  Turning is a peaceful and thoughtful read, filled with such beautiful prose.

I found Turning both fascinating and inspirational, and would recommend it to anyone who already loves the outdoors, or wishes to become more outdoorsy.  It has fostered in me the desire to try outdoor swimming for myself; I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to do so in Britain, but I’m hoping to work it into one of my future trips.

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‘The Last Act of Love’ by Cathy Rentzenbrink ****

I remember there being quite a lot of hype around when Cathy Rentzenbrink’s memoir, The Last Act of Love, was published in 2015, and I have been keen to read it since.  It is focused upon Rentzenbrink’s relationship with her adored younger brother, Matty, and the aftereffects of a tragic accident he was involved in as a teenager.

The Observer calls her memoir ‘life-affirming’, and author and surgeon Henry Marsh deems it ‘profoundly moving’.  The book’s own blurb describes The Last Act of Love as ‘a true story of a happy family ambushed by loss, the unknown place between life and death, and how to find love and joy in the world even when you know it will never be the same again.’

9781447286394When Rentzenbrink was seventeen, her ‘clever, funny and outgoing’ brother, younger than her by a year, was knocked down by a car when returning from a youth club in rural Yorkshire.  The family had moved to a village pub just a year before the accident, and it was here that Rentzenbrink was alerted to the fact that her brother had had an accident.  At the time, she did not want to disturb her parents, and made her way to the scene in a bystander’s car.  She reflects: ‘Matty was lying in the road.  He looked so long: his body was covered with coats…  I knelt next to him, touched his forehead, stroked his cheek with the back of my fingers.  His eyes were closed.  There was no damage to his face.  I couldn’t see any blood.  I felt for a pulse.  Found it.  Kept my fingers wrapped around his wrist so I could feel the evidence of his life.’

She would soon realise just how serious her brother’s condition was.  Matty was placed into an induced coma after having surgery for a traumatic head injury.  After his operation, Rentzenbrink thinks: ‘Surely someone this fit and strong couldn’t die?  Surely someone who was loved this much couldn’t die?’  Although the family were hopeful at first, he was diagnosed much later as being in a persistent vegetative state, and was unable to walk or speak again.  Rentzenbrink charts his very slow rise out of unconsciousness, into periods of ‘sleep and wake’.  He was tube fed, and unable to make even yes and no responses.  Matty passed away eight years later, in 1998.

During this time, the customers in the pub asked constant questions about Matty, and when he was expected to make a full recovery.  The family tried to be open, but this, writes Rentzenbrink, created its own set of problems: ‘Misunderstanding abounded.  Because we always talked positively and hopefully about Matty, people tended to think he was doing better than he was and were then shocked if they visited him to find that his gaze was either vacant or his eyes looked over to the right…’.

Rentzenbrink begins her memoir with such honesty.  She has gone back, as an adult, to visit the memorial chapel in the hospital which Matty was cared in.  After his passing, she reflects: ‘What strikes me now as it never has before is that I can’t say my prayers went unanswered.  I was given what I asked for.  My brother did not die.  But I did not know that there is a world between the certainties of life and death, that it is not simply a case of one or the other, and that there are many and various fates words than death.  That is what separates the me standing here now by the prayer tree from the girl kneeling in front of the altar all those years ago.  She thought she was living the worst night of her life, but I know now that far worse was to come.’

The tone of the narrative feels fitting for such a memoir.  Rentzenbrink’s writing has clarity and is emotive, but is not so suffused with emotion that anything else is overshadowed.  Despite the heartbreaking nature of the story, I found The Last Act of Love highly readable.  Throughout, Rentzenbrink offers her deepest thoughts, and it does not feel as though she holds anything back.  After Matty contracts his first infection, and then recovers from it, she remembers the following: ‘This was the first time I caught myself wondering if it might have been better if he’d died.  Would Matty have wanted this life?  Unable to do anything except open his eyes, have epileptic fits, occasionally make noises when in pain?  I didn’t allow these thoughts to develop, nor did I see how I could ever voice these to my parents, but they were there.’  She goes on to voice her belief that she should have been injured instead of her brother, and the extreme guilt which she felt in not making the most her life due to the overwhelming waves of grief which filled her.

In less than 250 pages, Rentzenbrink has written a deeply visceral, frank, and poignant memoir, about something which shaped both herself and her family.  She never speaks of herself, or her brother, with pity; rather, she examines the effects of his accident, and some impossible decisions which the family had to make.  She talks quite openly about the way in which she turned to alcohol and sex in order to help herself cope with the situation, and the effects which moving away to attend University had.

One cannot help but be moved by the beautifully written The Last Act of Love.  I shall end my review with this incredibly wise, and profound, comment which Rentzenbrink makes toward the end of her memoir: ‘Sometimes an absence can become as significant in our lives as a presence.’

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‘The Year of Less’ by Cait Flanders ***

My main goal for 2020, the first year of a brand new decade, is to stop shopping.  Or, rather, not to stop shopping entirely, but to stop buying things I don’t need (which basically amounts to the same thing).  I spent the first half of 2019 not buying any clothes at all, and those which I did purchase during the second half of the year were largely secondhand.  I feel as though I’m making inroads into being far more sustainable in my day-to-day life, and having seen many articles online, and YouTube videos, about year-long shopping bans, I felt like challenging myself.  I therefore turned to the advice of those who have already achieved this feat, and ended up borrowing Cait Flanders’ rather cheesily titled The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store from my local library.

In her late twenties, Canadian blogger Cait Flanders ‘found herself stuck in the 41cofeppafl._sx321_bo1204203200_consumerism cycle that grips so many of us: earn more, buy more, want more, rinse, repeat…  When she realized that nothing she was doing or buying was making her happy – only keeping her from meeting her goals – she decided to set herself a challenge: she would not shop for an entire year.’  When embarking on this project, the newest of many ‘experiments’ which she has set herself, Flanders notes the large financial incentive: ‘… I had no idea that during the next 12 months I would end up living on 51 percent of my income, saving 31 percent, and traveling with the rest.’

Much of Flanders’ project was initially documented on her blog.  The Year of Less is comprised of ‘the stories and lessons’ which she did not share online, for whatever reason.  She elaborates the reasoning for conducting such an ‘experiment’ in her introduction, writing: ‘I was never satisfied.  I always wanted more.  But since more of anything wasn’t filling me up, maybe it was time to challenge myself to go after less.’

Throughout The Year of Less, Flanders is honest about her past struggles with alcohol and her weight, and the way in which she becomes obsessed with things – like shopping and eating – in order to cope with various traumas and difficulties.  Although the move towards a no-buy year was, overall, a positive experience for her, she does write about the few friends who stopped inviting her to things: ‘They seemed confused by the whole experiment, and assumed that because I couldn’t shop, I also couldn’t go out for dinner.  Those assumptions hurt, because they made me feel like I was being ostracized for trying to better myself.’

There are clear differences between Flanders’ challenge, and the rules which I have set for my own.  I plan to borrow all of the books which I read from my local library, occasionally paying for requests to come in from other branches; at 75p per time, this is far less than buying even a secondhand book, and I am lucky that my local branch has a lot of really good stock.  Like Flanders, I am going to try only to buy consumables – things like groceries and toiletries – as and when I need them.  If something breaks and needs to be replaced, I will be allowed to purchase a replacement, and if I need any more furniture for my flat, the same rule applies.  However, unless I absolutely need something, I will not be buying it.

I am not going to be doing what Flanders chose to do, and get rid of 70% of my wardrobe.  For me, this is just not necessary.  I had a purge of my clothes last year, getting rid of the old things which I’d been hanging onto for years, and taking the clothes which just didn’t fit properly to the charity shop.  I am very happy with my current wardrobe, and am looking forward to being able to wear everything from it over the next year.

Rather than saving money, or getting out of debt – two major motivations for a challenge of this kind – I am merely hoping that this challenge will help me to better appreciate, and to use, what I already have.  I will hopefully finally get through, or at least make a visible dent in, the boxes of toiletries and makeup stashed beneath my bed, and watch all of the DVDs which I have been meaning to get to for years.

I am not going to be imposing a television ban upon myself, as Flanders did, and rather than go from July to July, as her challenge did, I am going to embark on it for the entirety of 2020.   Flanders also implemented an ‘Approved Shopping List’, filled with several items which she knew needed to be replaced in the next twelve months.  I have had this challenge in mind for rather a long time, and have therefore been able to replace a few things which were really worn out, or just were not useful, last year.  The only purchase which I can see myself needing to make in the next year is a full-length mirror; my boyfriend and I have been without one since we moved in July, and it’s something that we would both use daily.

I must admit that before I began to read The Year of Less, I imagined that it might be a bit gimicky.  I never turn to books which could be categorised under the umbrella of ‘self-help’, which I suppose, in a way, this memoir could.  I reached for this book in order to try and find some tips and inspiration for my own challenge.  I was interested in the ‘inspiring insight and practical guidance’ which the book’s blurb boasted.  However, the book is not as focused on the no-buy year as is title and description suggests.

Whilst The Year of Less is easy to read, with an accessible, almost chatty, prose style, it did feel at times as though I was just reading a series of articles, each of which had a loose connection to the one which came before.  There is not as much emotion in the book as I expected; even when Flanders is writing about really difficult subjects, like breakups and her parents’ divorce, her tone is curiously detached.  She does also steer towards being rather preachy on a couple of occasions, and I found myself cringing once or twice.  Some of the longer chapters are also rather saccharine.

Perhaps because I have slightly different expectations for my own challenge, and because I was expecting something different to what the book provided, I was rather disappointed by The Year of Less.  I expected to take more away from the book than I have, and frankly, I have found more workable advice in far shorter online articles.  The Year of Less is fine on the whole, but it felt more like a generalised memoir of Flanders’ life and struggles than a focus on her shopping ban.

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‘Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education’ by Sybille Bedford ***

Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education is the first book by Sybille Bedford which I have picked up.  It straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction, presenting as it does an exaggerated version of Bedford’s own childhood and young adulthood.  Jigsaw was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1989.

9780907871798Bedford was born in Germany, and educated in Italy, England, and France.  Jigsaw subsequently takes place in each of these countries.  The novel-cum-memoir has been split into five sections, which largely follow the author’s geographical journey.  It begins with a series of her earliest memories.  Whilst in the Danish seaside town of Skagen as a toddler, the narrator recollects: ‘What I wanted was to get into the water.  But between the sand and the water there lay a thick band of small fish, dead, wet, glistening fish.  The whole of me shrivelled with disgust.  Nanny, who wore boots and stockings, picked me up and lifted me over the fish.  I was in the water – coolness, lightness, dissolving, bliss: this is the sea, I am the sea, here is where I belong.  For ever.’

We move from Denmark to a southern corner of Germany, where the three-year-old narrator is living with her parents in 1914.  The uncertainty of war forces the family to stay with relatives in Berlin the following year, in a ‘large, dark house, over-upholstered and over-heated; the inhabitants never stopped eating.  Some were exceedingly kind, some were critical of our presence.’  The context, both historical and social, has been woven in well, and it proved to be the element which I was most interested in within Jigsaw; the inflation of German currency, convoluted train journeys during wartime, moving around a lot due to money troubles, and being sent away to school particularly fascinated me.  I also enjoyed reading about the differences which the narrator discusses between places which she had lived in.  I took in, with interest, the allusions Bedford made of not feeling as though she had a homeland, as she moved around so much as a child.  However, the emphasis upon this element was spoken about far too briefly for my personal taste.

The narrator is open about her relationships with her parents.  She realises that her father loved her in retrospect, ‘but – this is the unhappy part – he could not show his affection, only his anxieties, his fretting, his prohibitions…  And I with some curious callousness, with the arrogance of a lively, ignorant, if intelligent child, felt impatience with him and contempt.  He also created fear; perhaps because he was not reachable by any give and take of talk, perhaps because of the aura of solitariness about him.  Today we might call it alienation.’  Her interactions with her mother too are far from what she would have liked: ‘I was interested – and influenced – by my mother’s general opinions, but dreaded being alone with her.  She could be ironical and often impatient; she did not suffer little fools gladly.  That I was her own made not a scrap of difference…  Compassionate in her principles, she was high-handed even harsh in her daily dealings.  Between her and my father there had come much open ill feeling…  So in my early years (our rapport came later) I was afraid of my mother, more afraid of her, and in a different way, than I was of my father.’  Her parents go on to divorce when she is quite young, and she has to deal with the consequences.

There is a warmth, even a chattiness, to the narrative voice in Jigsaw.  Whilst compelling in its way, it never became something that I did not want to put down.  Not knowing what was true and what was fabricated, or exaggerated, was something that niggled at me.  Some of the scenes in Jigsaw seemed far too strange to be real, but there was no way of being sure.  Another thing which I really did not enjoy about the book was the continuous name-dropping which Bedford embarks upon rather early on.  I do not feel as though these people, most of whom were mentioned only as asides and not part of the current scenes or plot, added a great deal to proceedings.  This, like other parts of the book, felt rather superficial.

Jigsaw is not a badly written piece, but I cannot say that I enjoyed Bedford’s prose.  The phrasing and descriptions which she employed were largely fine, but there was no vividness or vivacity to the things which she described.  There was less description in Jigsaw than I was expecting, as it is far more focused upon people than place; the latter often quickly becomes a dull background, and is barely discussed.  Some elements were sped through; others were talked about at length, and therefore felt repetitive.

With a slightly different approach taken by the author, or a clear delineation between what is real or imagined, I feel as though I could have really admired this book.  As it was, I found it a little off and jarring; I would have personally preferred to read a straight biography, and not some strange, unknown mixture of biography and novel.  Jigsaw simply failed to stand out for me.  On the face of it, it sounded like a fascinating concept, but its execution left something to be desired for me as a reader.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘As Green As Grass: Growing Up Before, During and After the Second World War’ by Emma Smith ***

I had read two of Emma Smith’s books – one written for adults (The Far Cry) and the other for children (No Way of Telling) – prior to picking up one of her memoirs.  Whilst As Green As Grass: Growing Up Before, During and After the Second World War (2013) is not chronologically the first of her autobiographical works, it highly interested me, and was also available in my local library.

9781408835630Elspeth Hallsmith, as Emma Smith was born, moves with her family from Newquay in Cornwall to a Devonshire village named Crapstone.  Soon afterwards, her father suffers a nervous breakdown, and the family are left to deal with the far-reaching consequences.  There is also the outbreak of the Second World War to contend with, and Smith’s crisis that she has no idea how to help the war effort.  Her elder sister joins the WAAF, and her brother enlists with the RAF after a period of flirting with pacifism.  At this point, Smith is only sixteen years old.  She goes to secretarial college, which ‘equips her for a job with MI5’, but which she finds stuffy and dull.  She ‘yearns for fresh air and joins the crew of a canal boat carrying much-needed cargoes on Britain’s waterways.’  After the war ends, and her freedom is returned to her, Smith travels to India, moves to Chelsea in London, falls in and out of love, and writes, of course.

Smith has used a structure of short vignettes, which follow particular episodes in her life – for instance, travelling to London to be a bridesmaid; making a best friend at school; horseriding; playing sports; dancing classes; being left behind when her sister grows up and begins to study at art college; her father’s bad temper and fits of rage; and the longing which she often has to be alone.  When her family move to Devon, Smith describes her delight at being able to attend a ‘proper school’ with her sister, which comes with a uniform requirement: ‘And the fictitious girls in such Angela Brazil novels as I succeeded in borrowing from Boots’ Lending Library – they too wore gymslips on the illustrations I pored over, and now I shall be able to feel I am the same as those heroines.’

Of her father’s breakdown, she reflects: ‘Almost the worst part of the anguish is the sense of there being nobody I can share it with.  I don’t know how much the Twins are troubled, or indeed if they are troubled at all, by the blight that has fallen on our family.  I don’t know what either of them is thinking.  Pam has become uncommunicative, barely exchanging a sentence with me; Jim has deserted to the group of his cheerful friends… and Harvey – Harvey is only six.  I put my arms around him, hugging him tightly for comfort – my comfort, not his.  He wriggles free.’

In Smith’s fiction, I have been struck by her narrative voice, and I imagined that I would be here too.  Whilst some of her writing is certainly lovely, and sometimes revealing, other parts are comparatively simplistic.  There was no real consistency here.  I did feel at times as though Smith was holding back somewhat.  There was a sense of unexpected detachment in As Green As Grass, and it did not always feel as though there was sufficient explanation as to the many characters which flit in and out of its pages.

I also found it a little strange that Smith had largely employed the present tense with which to set out her memories.  Whilst As Green As Grass is certainly readable, and Smith’s voice is warm and engaging, I must admit that I was a little put off by the use of present tense, which made the whole seem imagined and exaggerated rather than truthful.  Had Smith approached this memoir from the perspective of herself as an adult looking back, I’m almost certain that I would have enjoyed it more.

Smith’s work is highly praised, but does not appear to be widely read, which is a real shame.  Whilst there were elements of As Green As Grass that I wasn’t overly keen on, I found it interesting overall.  However, I must say that As Green As Grass was not quite the book which I had hoped it would be, and I was made to feel a little uncomfortable by some of the antiquated and racist language which she uses – ‘native-born Indians’, for example.

Whilst As Green As Grass is by no means amongst the best war memoirs which I have read, I did enjoy the recollections of Smith’s childhood and teenage years.  The parts on the canal boat, which I expected to really enjoy and get a lot out of, were quite repetitive.  To date, I have enjoyed her fiction more, but I’m still relatively keen to pick up another of her memoirs; I am particularly intrigued by her recollections of her Cornish childhood in Great Western Beach.

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‘Heart Berries’ by Terese Marie Mailhot ****

Roxane Gay has deemed Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir, Heart Berries, ‘astounding’, and it ranks amongst the favourite books of both Kate Tempest and Emma Watson.  The New York Times calls it a ‘sledgehammer’ of a book, and believes that Mailhot has produces ‘a new model for the memoir.’  I had heard only praise for the book, Mailhot’s debut, and was therefore keen to pick up a copy myself.

9781526604408Heart Berries is described as ‘a powerful and poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on an Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest.  Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalised and facing a dual diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder, Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma.’  It sounded incredibly hard-hitting, and indeed, that is the overarching feeling which I have of the memoir.

As well as a form of therapy, Heart Berries was written as a ‘memorial’ for the author’s mother, as a way of reconciling with her estranged father, ‘and an elegy of how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.’  In the book, Mailhot finds herself able to discover ‘her own true voice, [and] seizes control of her story, and, in so doing, re-establishes her connection to her family, to her people and to her place in the world.’

Mailhot married for the first time when she was a teenager, and living on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in British Columbia, Canada.  Her husband was violent, and took their young son away from her.  She writes of the way in which this led to her entire life collapsing: ‘We mined each other, and then my mother died.  I had to leave the reservation.’  Mailhot goes on to declare, ‘It’s too ugly – to speak this story…’, and then to ask, ‘How could misfortune follow me so well, and why did I chase it every time?’

From the outset, Mailhot’s voice is authoritative and firm.  She begins by writing: ‘My story was maltreated.  The words were too wrong and ugly to speak.  I tried to tell someone my story, but he thought it was a hustle…  I was silenced by charity – like so many Indians.  I kept my hand out…  The thing about women from the river is that our currents are endless.  We sometimes outrun ourselves.’  Some of the imagery which she goes on to create is nothing short of startling: ‘That’s when my nightmares came.  A spinning wheel, a white porcelain tooth, a snarling mouth, and lightning haunted me.  My mother told me they were visions.’

I found the memoir insightful, particularly when it came to explaining the place in the world of the First Nations community, and the author’s comparisons drawn between her people and the whites who live around them.  She also considers how the First Nations people have had to adapt to the modern world: ‘Our culture is based in the profundity things carry.  We’re always trying to see the world the way our ancestors did – we feel less of a relationship to the natural world.  There was a time when we dictated our beliefs and told ourselves what was real, or what was wrong or right.  There weren’t any abstractions.  We knew that our language came before the world.’  Her wider culture helped her to overcome, or at least to work through, some of the abuse which she suffered: ‘The only thing, the right thing – the thing that brought about my immunity – was the knowledge that something instinctual would carry us back.  The awareness that our ancestors were watching was vital.  I don’t feel the eyes of my grandmother anymore.’

So many things form an integral part of Mailhot’s story: poverty, anger, being viewed as ‘Other’, objectification, vulnerability, self-perception, motherhood, heartbreak, loss, and mental health, to name but a handful.  The structure which she has used throughout Heart Berries, which is made up of a series of loosely connecting essays, works well; it demonstrates that one’s memory is never exact, but can be warped and moulded.  The almost stream-of-consciousness prose, and turns of phrase, allow the reader to keep in mind just how troubled Mailhot was when writing.  She shows this in harsh, heartbreaking phrases, such as ‘I feel like my body is being drawn through a syringe.  Sometimes walking is hard.’  She comes across as brusque yet sincere, laying her grief bare upon the page: ‘I fit the criteria of an adult child of an alcoholic and the victim of sexual abuse.  I reiterate to the therapist several stories about my eldest brother’s abuse and my sister’s.  I often have felt, in proximity to their violations, that I mimic their chaos.’

Heart Berries is a slim memoir, filling just 130 pages.  There is so much to be found within its pages, however, and I feel that I got more from it than I have in memoirs three or four times its size.  Heart Berries presents a searing and honest portrait of a troubled life.  It is both brutal and bitter in what it portrays.  What is included here is presented as the prose which she wrote whilst receiving help for her diagnosed disorders, and is addressed to her husband, Casey: ‘I’m writing you from a behavioral health service building.  I agreed to commit myself under the condition they would let me write.’  There are many trigger warnings throughout Mailhot’s memoir, but she never goes into detail about the kinds of abuse which she suffered; rather, she has kept this part of her story hidden.  Heart Berries is a dark yet admirable book, which has a real sense of poignancy.

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