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‘Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital’ by Franz Hessel ****

I adore books about flaneurs; I find them absolutely fascinating.  Thus, I was thrilled to come across Franz Hessel’s Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital whilst browsing in a bookshop, and purchased a copy immediately.  First published in Germany in 1929, it was not until 2016 that Walking in Berlin was translated into English by Amanda DeMarco.  Hessel grew up in Berlin, and DeMarco is currently based there, which I feel is a nice and considered touch.

The book promises ‘a walk around 1920s Berlin with one of its greatest luminaries’.  Since its original publication, Hessel’s ‘timeless guide’ has been highly praised.  In her introduction, DeMarco notes that the book was ‘a critical success upon its publication… [but was] largely forgotten after the Second World War.’  Walter Benjamin, a great friend of Hessel’s, declares it ‘an absolutely epic book, a walking remembrance’.  The Independent writes that it ‘captures a portrait of a city on the brink of irrevocable change’.  The Observer calls it a ‘love letter to the city’, and the Times Literary Supplement states that it is ‘not only an important record of old Berlin; it is a testimony to its enduring spirit.’ 9781925228359

Hessel takes his readers on a walk around much of Weimar-era Berlin, splitting his observations into essays relating to particular districts.  He takes in ‘some of the most fascinating sights the city has to offer, many of which still exist in some form today’.  Many of these sights are seen on foot, as Hessel wove through one street after another, but the odd one was conducted whilst in a car, or on a day-long tour with a lot of Americans.  DeMarco writes that ‘Hessel’s knowledge of city history was extensive, gleaned from an art-history education and an avid personal interest in the cultural sediment that had accumulated around him.  It is evident in these pages that history was alive and present for him, visible in the architecture.  All it took was a glimpse of a statue or bridge or gate to send Hessel conjuring up the figures and era that produced it.’  Despite his knowledge of the city, Hessel wished to present his findings here as though he was coming to Berlin for the first time.

Of course, Berlin, like many other cities, was going through a period of rapid modernisation during the 1920s.  Thus, the city which he describes notes the changes which are occurring, as well as the way things used to be when Hessel was a child.  Of this, DeMarco writes: ‘… the breathless pace of his descriptions reveals the new heartbeat of a populace that was cathartically shaking off the trauma of the First World War, while frantically grasping for economic stability.’  Of his city, Hessel tells us of Berlin’s ongoing metamorphosis: ‘I’ll have to educate myself in local history, take an interest in both the past and future of this city, a city that’s always on the go, always in the middle of becoming something else.’

The first essay, ‘The Suspect’, begins with Hussel observing people at work, and young girls at play.  From his position as a flaneur, he writes of the suspicion which the observed sometimes felt toward him: ‘I attract wary glances whenever I try to play the flaneur among the industrious; I believe they take me for a pickpocket.’  Throughout, Hessel’s voice is chatty, and almost playful.  As he continues his journey, he comes across many different people – stocking menders, architects, factory workers, shopkeepers, the rich and the poor, upperclass partygoers, and tour guides, to name but a few.  As Hessel makes his way around, he discusses art, literature, culture, and fashion, as well as streets already lost to the annals of time in the 1920s.

Throughout, Hessel’s writing is layered and sumptuous.  In the extended essay entitled ‘A Tour’, he joins a sightseeing buggy, intending to try and see Berlin through the eyes of a traveller.  During his experience, he weaves his own childhood memories of the city in with what he observes: ‘Now we’re gliding past the long facade of the library, its sunny side.  Silks, leathers and metals entice from the marquees of elegant shops.  The lace curtains at Restaurant Hiller awaken distant memories of happy hours, the nearly forgotten fragrance of lobster and Chablis, the old porter who led you so discreetly to the cabinets particuliers.  I tear myself away – I’m a foreigner here, after all – only to be caught up again.  Travel agencies, mesmerising displays of world maps and globes, the magic of the little green books with red notes, seductive names of distant cities.  Ah, these blessed departures from Berlin!  How callously one leaves our beloved city.’

I love Berlin; when I visited some years ago, I found it a vibrant and hip city, filled with so much history.  Hessel’s book has made me want to book plane tickets to explore the city once more, with his notes in hand this time around.  Pick up Walking in Berlin, and expect that it will inspire a great wanderlust in you.  Hessel describes it, quite rightly, as a city filled with treasures.  It was a sheer pleasure to be transported to a Berlin which I half-recognised, and seeing it through the eyes of another brought a delightful freshness.

Walking in Berlin is a lovely and often quite touching rumination on the many things which are needed to make a city, and has wonderful asides which discuss the experience of being a flaneur: ‘The flaneur reads the street, and human faces, displays, window dressings, cafe terraces… [and they] become letters that yield the words, sentences and pages of a book that is always new.’  It seems fitting to end this review with something which Hessel writes in his afterword.  ‘Now, dear fellow citizens,’ he says, ‘please don’t reproach me for all of the important and noteworthy things that I’ve overlooked; rather, go out yourselves, aimlessly, just as I have done, on hazard’s little voyages of discovery.  You don’t have time?  That’s false ambition speaking.’

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‘The Red Tenda of Bologna’ by John Berger *****

I had not read anything of John Berger’s before reaching the thirtieth book in the Penguin Moderns series.  The Red Tenda of Bologna, which was first published in 2007, is a ‘dream-like meditation on memory, food, paintings, a fond uncle and the improbable beauty of Bologna, from the visionary thinker and art critic.’

9780241339015The Red Tenda of Bologna opens in an intriguing, even a spellbinding, way, when Berger depicts the relationship which he had with his uncle Edgar: ‘I should begin with how I loved him, in what manner, to what degree, with what kind of incomprehension.’  The way in which he describes his uncle is quite lovely: ‘When he first came to live with us, I was about ten years old and he was in his mid-fifties.  Yet I thought of him as ageless.  Not unchanging, certainly not immortal, but ageless because unanchored in any period, past or future.  And so, as a kid, I could love him as an equal.  Which I did.’

The Red Tenda of Bologna is comprised of a series of untitled vignettes, some of which are only one sentence long, and which together form a wonderful fragmented memoir.  These vignettes follow one another in their content; a rumination in one about Berger and Uncle Edgar sharing affection for one another by giving small gifts leads to a list of some of the things which they exchanged, ranging from ‘a map of Iceland’ and ‘a pair of motorbike goggles’, to ‘a biography of Dickens’ and ‘one and a half dozen Whistable oysters.’

Berger fittingly brings his memories of his uncle to life on the page.  It soon becomes quite possible to see Edgar sitting astride his upright bicycle, with its pile of books strapped to the luggage rack, ready to be exchanged at Croydon’s public library.  Edgar was clearly a huge influence upon, and comfort within, Berger’s life.  He writes: ‘Whenever I stood beside him – in the figurative or literal sense – I felt reassured.  Time will tell, he used to say, and he said this in such a way that I assumed time would tell what we’d both be finally glad to hear.’

Indeed, Berger decides to travel to Bologna quite some time after his uncle’s death, as it was a place which Edgar held dear.  The scenes which unfold on the page are both sumptuous and observant; for instance, Berger writes: ‘I notice that some people crossing the square, when they are more or less at its centre, pause and lean their backs against an invisible wall of an invisible tower of air, which reaches towards the sky, and there they glance upwards to check the clouds or the sky’s emptiness.’  Thus, the history of his uncle, and the history of Bologna, begin to converge.  Berger writes about a singular relationship, as well as the relationship which he has with Bologna.

The ‘tenda’ of the book’s title is the name of the red cloth used to make window awnings in Bologna, all of which are in varying shades of red according to their age.  Berger wishes to buy a length of it, as a souvenir of his trip.  He writes: ‘I’m not sure what I’ll do with it.  Maybe I only need it to make this portrait.  Anyway I’ll be able to feel it, scrumble it up, smooth it out, hold it against the sunlight, hang it, fold it, dream of what’s on the other side.’

The Red Tenda of Bologna is a tender, thoughtful rumination on life and love.  It is a small but perfectly formed book, artful and intelligent.  The prose is best savoured, written as it is with the all-seeing artist’s eye.

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One From the Archive: ‘London War Notes: 1939-1945’ by Mollie Panter-Downes *****

First published in 2015.

The 111th entry on the Persephone list, and one of this year’s spring reprints, is Mollie Panter-Downes’ excellent London War Notes: 1939-1945.  First published in the US in 1971 and the UK in 1972, the collection gathers together material which was originally published in The New Yorker during the Second World War.

Between 1939 and 1945, Panter-Downes wrote a regular ‘Letter from London’.  These letters began at a pivotal time for Great Britain, as: ‘The first was written on the very Sunday that Neville Chamberlain informed the nation that his untiring efforts to preserve peace had failed’.  In all, she contributed 153 such pieces, as well as two dozen short stories, which Persephone have already gathered together in the Good Evening, Mrs Craven collection.

Edited by William Shawn, this new edition features a far-reaching preface which has been written by David Kynaston.  He believes that Panter-Downes’ humour is ‘wryly observational’, and this volume rightly leaves ‘historians as well as readers forever in her debt’ for the slice of wartime life which it presents.

The original American spellings and turns of phrase have been retained within London War Notes, as they ‘give a better sense of the period and of Mollie Panter-Downes’s original audience’.  Another nice touch within the book is the way in which it has been split up into sections, each of which refer to different years within the Second World War.  Each thus begins with a helpful timeline of the main historical events which occurred in any given year, which are both of importance in general terms, or which had definite consequences within Britain, and thus had major effects upon the populous – the rationing of petrol in September 1939, for example.

Robert Harris called Panter-Downes ‘the Jane Austen of the Home Front’, and it is easy to see why.  She is incredibly observant and, Kynaston agrees, she ‘deftly and economically makes us feel present without ever resorting to purple prose’. Panter-Downes is a wonderful writer; she is coolly intelligent, and is never one to get flustered.  One immediately receives the impression that she was one of those incredibly collected and headstrong women, who always tried to make the best of any given situation.  Each of her observations within London War Notes is of value, and never does she under- or overstate anything.  Panter-Downes is particularly fabulous at reasserting her own position, and that of her country, against the war at large.  She is a thoughtful prose writer, too: ‘The London crowds are cool,’ she writes on the day that war is declared, ‘in spite of thundery weather which does its best to scare everybody by staging unofficial rehearsals for aid raids at the end of breathlessly humid days’.

London War Notes is a wonderful and all-encompassing read.  It is a fabulous piece of non-fiction, and feels incredibly fitting for the varied Persephone Classics list.  As far as journalism – and particularly wartime journalism from the perspective of somebody who was surviving on the Home Front – goes, London War Notes is at the very pinnacle.

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‘A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of the Columbine Tragedy’ by Sue Klebold ****

On April the 20th 1999, Dylan Klebold and his friend, Eric Harris, killed thirteen people – twelve students and one teacher – at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, before taking their own lives.  A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of the Columbine Tragedy was written by Dylan’s mother, Sue, in order to try and deal with her son’s actions.

9780753556801Of course, A Mother’s Reckoning is harrowing in its content, from its informative and thoughtful introduction by Andrew Solomon to its closing pages.  In her preface to the paperback edition, Klebold tells us: ‘I began writing about the experience of Columbine almost from the moment it happened, because writing about my son’s cruel behavior and his suicide was one of the ways I coped with the tragedy.  I never made a conscious decision to write.  I kept writing just as I kept breathing.’  At first, Klebold’s writing was merely personal; she was writing for herself, and did not wish to put her family, or other members of the community, through the ‘shattering experience’ of Columbine once more if it were published.

After a while, however, her view changed.  She writes: ‘In the end, I was able to take that step [of publishing A Mother’s Reckoning] because the messages I hoped to convey were a matter of life and death.  I felt a responsibility to educate parents and families about what happened, and why.  I believed that hearing what Dylan had gone through might be beneficial to others, especially those who are struggling with lethal thoughts, or who find themselves or their loved ones trapped in a cycle of hopelessness.’  Klebold now uses her platform to try and educate others about violence, suicide, and mental health, at both a local and national level, and works tirelessly for suicide prevention in the United States.

A Mother’s Reckoning uses excerpts from Klebold’s diaries, as well as reflective passages.  She has interviewed a wealth of experts from many fields, from law enforcement to psychology, and has woven in their thoughts and arguments too.  Klebold’s prose is easy to read, but her story is not.  This is particularly true when she recounts, in very matter-of-fact and almost emotionless prose, the details of the shooting.

The memoir begins with the phonecall which Klebold receives from her frenzied husband, Tom on the day of the shooting.  At first, unclear about the situation, she naturally thinks that her son may have been hurt in the shooting; it is only much later that she realises he played an active role in the attack.  As she hurries home from work following Tom’s call, she recalls: ‘They say your life flashes before you when you die, but on that car ride home, it was my son’s life flashing before me, like a movie reel – each precious frame both breaking my heart and filling me with desperate hope.’

From the outset, Klebold’s voice feels searingly honest.  Just after the shooting, when their secluded home is filled with police and SWAT teams searching for explosives, she writes: ‘It will perhaps seem callous that my focus was so squarely on Dylan – on the question of his safety, and later on the fact of his death. But my obligation is to offer the truth to the degree to which my memory will allow, even when that truth reflects badly on me.  And the truth is that my thoughts were with my son.’

Klebold describes, in quite painful detail, the process of accepting that her son both killed others, and then killed himself.  She was hurt when her son and Eric Harris were left out of Columbine memorials, but entirely understands the reasoning for such a decision.  She speaks throughout of the trauma which she and her family encountered, shunned by many members of the larger community, who believed that Dylan’s upbringing was to blame.  She tells us of her disbelief at Dylan’s involvement, which lasted for years afterwards: ‘A mechanism to preserve our sanity kicks in and lets in only what we can bear, a little at a time.  It is a defense mechanism, breathtaking in its power both to shield and to distort.’

Throughout, she shows such compassion to the victims, and takes a month to write to each of their families individually, to express her sorrow.  Another motivation for Klebold in writing this memoir was as follows: ‘… I hope to honor the memories of the people my son killed.  The best way I know to do that is to be truthful, to the best of my ability.  And so, this is the truth: my tears for the victims did eventually come, and they still do.  But they did not come that day.’  She speaks of writing as her therapy, whether this was addressed to the families of the victims, or in the pages of her own journal: ‘After Columbine, the relief I got from writing felt almost physical, if temporary.  My diaries became the place for me to corral the myriad, often contradictory feelings I had about my son and what he had done.  In the earliest days, writing allowed me to process my tremendous grief for the sorrow and suffering Dylan had caused.  Before I could reach out personally to the families of the victims, the journals were a place for me to apologize to them with all my heart, and to grieve privately for the losses they had sustained.’

Klebold talks of the fierce anti-gun stance which she and her husband had, not allowing their sons to own guns like a lot of their peers.  In fact, they were considering moving away from Colorado, as the gun laws had become too relaxed before Columbine occurred.  She wonders, although not at length, whether this would have prevented the tragedy from occurring, but later notes that Eric Harris had approached two friends to commit the atrocity with him before planning with Dylan.

A Mother’s Reckoning must have been incredibly difficult to write, but in its approach and musings, Klebold has set the right tone.  Of course, her memoir is biased in that she loved Dylan, but the memories of the son which she had often feel in conflict with what was reported about him.  The final section of the book discusses at lengths the issues with media reportage of such tragedies; Klebold believes that giving out the details of the shooter, or shooters, inspires copycat behaviour, sensationalising as it does what went on.  She also discusses, in this section, markers for depression and suicidal thoughts in children and young adults, and the signs which both she and her husband had just put down to the difficulties of hormonal and bodily changes.

Klebold says: ‘This Pandora’s box will never empty; I will spend the rest of my life reconciling the reality of the child I knew with what he did.’  The Columbine tragedy has affected everything in her life, and changed the way in which she views the world around her.  She talks openly about the suicidal thoughts which she and her husband had, and the sheer panic which she would feel every time her older son, Byron, was out of her sight.  A Mother’s Reckoning is touching and moving; it is as chilling as it is insightful, and aims to help those who may be at risk of carrying out similar attacks.  Klebold has discussed not only her own feelings, but has talked about the aftermath’s effects in the wider community, in a compassionate way.  A Mother’s Reckoning is an important memoir, in which Klebold exhibits such bravery, and lays her own self open.

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‘One Writer’s Beginnings’ by Eudora Welty ****

I very much enjoy Eudora Welty’s fiction, but know comparatively little about her childhood.  I read the wonderful What There Is To Say We Have Said a couple of years ago, which features much of the correspondence between Welty and another favourite author of mine, William Maxwell.  This autobiographical work, which is composed of a wealth of memories largely from Welty’s Mississippi childhood, works as a wonderful companion volume.

Of One Writer’s Beginnings, William Maxwell writes, ‘It is all wonderful…  The parts of the book that are about her family… are by turns hilarious and affecting.  They are a kind of present… from Miss Welty to her audience.’  Penelope Lively believes it to be a piece of ‘entrancing reading’, and Paul Binding writes in the New Statesman: ‘A writer for whom “genius” is for once a not inappropriate word…  A book of great sensitivity – as controlled and yet aspiring as a lyric poem.’

9780674639270In One Writer’s Beginnings, which was first published in 1984, Welty decided to tell her story in one ‘continuous thread of revelation’.  The book provides, says its blurb, ‘… an exploration of memory by one of America’s finest writers, whose many honours include the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award for Fiction, and the Gold Medal for the novel.’  This book consists of three essays – ‘Listening’, ‘Learning to See’, and ‘Finding a Voice’ – which have been transcribed from a set of three lectures which Welty gave at Harvard University in April 1983.

When ‘Listening’ begins, Welty’s words set the scene immediately: ‘In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.’  Throughout, Welty’s voice is lyrical, candid, and often quite moving.  She reveals her deep love of books, which was present even when she was a tiny child.  ‘I learned,’ she writes, ‘from the age of two or three that any room in our house, at any time of day, was there to read in, or be read to.’  Welty’s writing is particularly beautiful when she discusses her love of stories: ‘It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass.  Yet regardless of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them – with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself.  Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them.’

In a series of vignettes, Welty talks about stargazing, singing, childhood illness, learning the alphabet, religion, schooling, and the quirks of her in some ways unconventional parents, amongst other things.  The imagery which she conjures up is often lovely; for instance: ‘All children in those small-town, unhurried days had a vast inner life going on in the movies.  Whole families attended together in the evenings, at least once a week, and children were allowed to go without chaperone in the long summer afternoons – schoolmates with their best friends, pairs of little girls trotting on foot the short distance through the park to town under their Japanese parasols.’  When she discusses the travels which she went on with her family each summer, she writes of their positive effect upon her later writing: ‘I think now, in looking back on these summer trips – this one and a number later, made in the car and on the train – that another element in them must have been influencing my mind.  The trips were wholes unto themselves.  They were stories.  Not only in form, but their taking on direction, movement, development, change.  They changed something in my life: each trip made its particular revelation, though I could not have found words for it.  But with the passage of time, I could look back on them and see them bringing me news, discoveries, premonitions, promises – I still can; they still do.’

One Writer’s Beginnings spans Welty’s childhood, and includes comparatively brief reflections about her time at college, and the early days of her writing career.  She is insightful about the creation of her characters, and the knowledge which one must have as an author to create enough depth.  ‘Characters take on a life sometimes by luck,’ writes Welty, ‘but I suspect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.’

One Writer’s Beginnings is a beautifully written celebration of stories, of Welty’s own, and of those which filled her girlhood.  I was pulled in immediately, transported to the Deep South in the early twentieth century.  This is a joyous account, filled with depth and insight.  Welty’s voice is utterly charming, and sometimes quite profound.  I shall close this review with one of the most wonderful quotes from the book: ‘The memory is a living thing – it too is in transit.  But during the moment, all that is remembered joins and lives – the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.’

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One From the Archive: ‘The Path Through the Trees’ by Christopher Milne ***

First published in 2014.

The Path Through the Trees, the second volume of Christopher Milne’s autobiography, was first published in 1979, and has been recently reissued by Bello.  It starts where The Enchanted Places ‘left off’, but, the author says, this book ‘is a complement [to it].  It is about the non-Pooh part of my life.  It is an escape from Christopher Robin’. 9781447269854

In The Path Through The Trees, Milne presents what he thinks of as ‘a disjointed story – but a happy life’.  He describes the second part of his autobiography as follows: ‘So I live at the bottom of a valley.  I have a small bookshop in a small town; and I seldom venture far afield’.  In the book, his story begins at ‘the point in time when the choice stopped being theirs [his parents’] and became mine’.  It opens with the declaration of the Second World War, when he has finished at his public school and is about to go and study at Trinity College, Cambridge.

A few of the themes which were so prevalent in The Enchanted Places weave their way into The Path Through the Trees, most notably the importance of nature and Milne’s love for his natural surroundings.  The Path Through the Trees is written just as eloquently as the former, but the entirety feels far more grown up.  Milne talks about smoking for the first (and last) time, forays into politics, his joining up with the Army, discovering himself as a person, his marriage, and becoming a father.  Records from his personal diary have been copied verbatim.

Whilst the charm of the first book has not made its way into the second, The Path Through the Trees is still a most interesting read, particularly when Milne reaches his acquisition of the Harbour Bookshop in the small town of Dartmouth.  It is at this point that the book really comes into its own.

One cannot help but feel, however, that the same kind of leap between volumes of autobiography is present here as exists between Roald Dahl’s Boy and Going Solo.  The spellbinding note has been lost somewhere along the way, and sadly, a lot of it tends to read just like any other memoir.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Enchanted Places’ by Christopher Milne ****

First published in 2014.

Christopher Milne’s The Enchanted Places is one of the newest books on Bello’s thoughtful list of reprints. He was the son of A.A. Milne, and the inspiration for the darling character Christopher Robin – ‘the small boy with the long hair, smock and wellington boots’ – who shares his adventures with a cast of lively and captivating animals, including Pooh and Piglet. 9781509821891

The Enchanted Places has been written from the vantage point of the author’s mid-50s, and tells of his childhood in the ‘enchanted places’ in Sussex in which he used to play – the Hundred Acre Wood, Poohsticks Bridge and Galleon’s Lap, among others.  As well as talking of his own adventures as a young boy, Milne ‘draws a memorable portrait of his father… [in] a story told with humour and modesty’.

The Enchanted Places, first published in 1974, is the first book in Milne’s three volume autobiographical series, and deals solely with his life as a young boy.  His memoirs begin ‘somewhere around the year 1932’ in his Crotchford Farm home, a place which he and his family adored. Milne describes the reason for which he decided to write about his life as follows: ‘To some extent, then, this book is an attempt to salve my conscience; and it may perhaps be some slight consolation to all those who have written and waited in vain for a reply that this, in a sense therefore, is their reply’.

Throughout, The Enchanted Places is absolutely charming, and full of vivacity.  Milne’s descriptions are beautiful, and it is clear that he was forever full of love for both nature and life.  Rural England springs vividly to life beneath his pen.  Each chapter presents a mini essay of sorts on one subject or another, and whilst Milne’s prose style echoes his father’s, there is also something wonderfully original about it.

A.A. Milne with Christopher and Pooh Bear

Milne is a rather humble man, and comes across so nicely on the page.  He takes the reader on a journey back in time with him to encompass his nursery days, his forays into the Hundred Acre Wood, tours of his home, the discovery of his very first treehouse, and the adoration he held for his childhood nanny.  He goes on to talk of the problems which he encountered due to his immortalisation in fiction, and demonstrates how his father’s fame impacted upon him from such an early age.

The Enchanted Places is a quaint and an incredibly lovely read, and is sure to be a welcome addition to any bookshelf.  The natural settings and shyness of Milne as a young boy have been captured perfectly, and the book presents a rich treasure trove of memories, certain to enchant everyone for whom Winnie the Pooh was a part of childhood.

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