6

The Book Trail: Nature and Non-Fiction Edition

I am beginning this latest Book Trail with one of my favourite works of non-fiction from recent years – Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. As ever, I have used the Goodreads’ ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool in order to come up with this list. As ever, please let me know which of these books you have read, and which whet your appetite!

1. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
‘Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator. When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood—she’d never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White’s chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity and changed her life. Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer’s eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.’

2. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane
‘Robert Macfarlane travels Britain’s ancient paths and discovers the secrets of our beautiful, underappreciated landscape. Following the tracks, holloways, drove-roads and sea paths that form part of a vast ancient network of routes criss-crossing the British Isles and beyond, Robert Macfarlane discovers a lost world – a landscape of the feet and the mind, of pilgrimage and ritual, of stories and ghosts; above all of the places and journeys which inspire and inhabit our imaginations.’

3. Notes from Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin
‘When Roger Deakin died in August 2006, his death was considered by many to be a great loss to literature. “Notes From Walnut Tree Farm” collects together the jottings, musings and observations with which he filled a series of notebooks for the last six years of his life. In this beautiful illustrated collection, descriptions of walks on Mellis Common and thoughts on the importance of nature sit side by side with memories of the past and musings about literature, while perfectly rendered observations of the tiny, missable visual details of everyday life are skilfully woven with a gentle, wise philosophy. Organized into twelve months of impressions, the notes reveal a passionate but gentle character and his extraordinary, restless curiosity. Capturing Deakin’s unique turn of phrase and inspired use of language, and infused throughout with the magically meditative tranquility of Walnut Tree Farm, this is a charming introduction to one of the most important of modern nature writers, or the perfect follow-up to “Wildwood” and “Waterlog”.’

4. The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck
‘In 1940 Steinbeck sailed in a sardine boat with his great friend the marine biologist, Ed Ricketts, to collect marine invertebrates from the beaches of the Gulf of California. The expedition was described by the two men in Sea of Cortez, published in 1941. The day-to-day story of the trip is told here in the Log, which combines science, philosophy and high-spirited adventure.’

5. Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings by Valerie Trouet
‘Children around the world know that to tell how old a tree is, you count its rings. Few people, however, know that research into tree rings has also made amazing contributions to our understanding of Earth’s climate history and its influences on human civilization over the past 2,000 years. In her captivating new book, Tree Story, Valerie Trouet reveals how the seemingly simple and relatively familiar concept of counting tree rings has inspired far-reaching scientific breakthroughs that illuminate the complex interactions between nature and people. Trouet, a leading tree-ring scientist, takes us out into the field, from remote African villages to radioactive Russian forests, offering readers an insider’s look at tree-ring research, a discipline formally known as dendrochronology. Tracing her own professional journey while exploring dendrochronology’s history and applications, Trouet describes the basics of how tell-tale tree cores are collected and dated with ring-by-ring precision, explaining the unexpected and momentous insights we’ve gained from the resulting samples. Blending popular science, travelogue, and cultural history, Tree Story highlights exciting findings of tree-ring research, including the fate of lost pirate treasure, successful strategies for surviving California wildfire, the secret to Genghis Khan’s victories, the connection between Egyptian pharaohs and volcanoes, and even the role of olives in the fall of Rome. These fascinating tales are deftly woven together to show us how dendrochronology sheds light on global climate dynamics and uncovers the clear links between humans and our leafy neighbors. Trouet delights us with her dedication to the tangible appeal of studying trees, a discipline that has taken her to austere and beautiful landscapes around the globe and has enabled scientists to solve long-pondered mysteries of Earth and its human inhabitants.’

6. Things the Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Everett
‘How does one young man survive the deaths of his entire family and manage to make something worthwhile of his life? In Things The Grandchildren Should Know Mark Oliver Everett tells the story of what it’s like to grow up the insecure son of a genius in a wacky Virginia Ice Storm-like family. Left to run wild with his sister, his father off in some parallel universe of his own invention, Everett’s upbringing was ‘ridiculous, sometimes tragic and always unsteady’. But somehow he manages to not only survive his crazy upbringing and ensuing tragedies; he makes something of his life, striking out on a journey to find himself by channelling his experiences into his, eventually, critically acclaimed music with the Eels. But it’s not an easy path. Told with surprising candour, Things The Grandchildren Should Know is an inspiring and remarkable story, full of hope, humour and wry wisdom.’

7. Close Encounters with Humankind by Sang-Hee Lee
‘What can fossilized teeth tell us about our ancient ancestors’ life expectancy? Did farming play a problematic role in the history of human evolution? And what do we have in common with Neanderthals? In this captivating bestseller, Close Encounters with Humankind, paleoanthropologist Sang-Hee Lee explores our greatest evolutionary questions from new and unexpected angles. Through a series of entertaining, bite-sized chapters that combine anthropological insight with cutting-edge science, we gain fresh perspectives into our first hominin ancestors and ways to challenge perceptions about the traditional progression of evolution. With Lee as our guide, we discover that we indeed have always been a species of continuous change.’

8. The Ghost Orchard by Helen Humphreys
‘For readers of H is for Hawk and The Frozen ThamesThe Ghost Orchard is award-winning author Helen Humphreys’ fascinating journey into the secret history of an iconic food. Delving deep into the storied past of the apple in North America, Humphreys explores the intricate link between agriculture, settlement, and human relationships. With her signature insight and exquisite prose, she brings light to such varied topics as how the apple first came across the Atlantic Ocean with a relatively unknown Quaker woman long before the more famed “Johnny Appleseed”; how bountiful Indigenous orchards were targeted to be taken over or eradicated by white settlers and their armies; how the once-17,000 varietals of apple cultivated were catalogued by watercolour artists from the United States’ Department of Pomology;  how apples wove into the life and poetry of Robert Frost; and how Humphreys’ own curiosity was piqued by the Winter Pear Pearmain, believed to be the world’s best tasting apple, which she found growing beside an abandoned cottage not far from her home. In telling this hidden history, Humphreys writes movingly about the experience of her research, something she undertook as one of her closest friends was dying. The result is a book that is both personal and universal, combining engaging storytelling, historical detail, and deep emotional insight.’

5

Five Great Memoirs

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

‘Negroland: A Memoir’ by Margo Jefferson ***

Margo Jefferson’s memoir, Negroland, was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography following its publication in 2015.  In this, her second book, Pulitzer Prize-winning Jefferson has set out to explore the idea of “Negroland”, which she defines as ‘a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty’. The book’s blurb calls Negroland ‘at once incendiary and icy, celebratory and elegiac – here is a deeply felt meditation on race, sex, class and American culture old through the prism of the author’s rarefied upbringing and education.’

9781783783021Jefferson sees herself as a ‘chronicler’ of “Negroland”, ‘a participant – observer, an elegist, dissenter and admirer; sometime expatriate, ongoing interlocutor.’  Of her choice to invent the term “Negroland”, she writes: ‘I call it Negroland because I still find “Negro” a word of wonders, glorious and terrible.  A word for runaway slave posters and civil rights proclamations; for social constructs and street corner flaunts.  A tonal-language word whose meaning shifts as setting and context shift, as history twists, lurches, advances, and stagnates.’  She later comments: ‘”Negro” is the magic word, the spell.  The small grow large, the mundane turns exceptional, and the individual becomes cosmic.’

In his review, Hilton Als writes: ‘Jefferson has lived and worked like the great reporter she is, traversing a little-known or -understood landscape peopled by blacks and whites, dreamers and naysayers, the privileged and the strivers who make up the mosaic known as America.’  Aminatta Forna comments: ‘It would be too easy to call Negroland a groundbreaking work and yet this is exactly what it is.  In her descriptions of a life lived on the nexus of race and class Margo Jefferson tells a tale of how people create, defy and survive systems of exclusion and inclusion, of the human toll that must be exacted.’  Eula Biss believes that Negroland provides ‘… the record of a powerful mind grappling with all the trouble of being awake.’

Jefferson herself grew up in a wealthy family in Chicago, to a doctor father and well-educated, ‘fashionable socialite’ mother, who opted to stay at home and look after her two daughters.  She is concerned throughout about the way in which others perceived her upbringing and her family’s societal position.  She comments: ‘Nothing highlighted our privilege more than the menace to it.  Inside the race we were the self-designated aristocrats, educated, affluent, accomplished; to Caucasians we were oddities, underdogs and interlopers.’

Negroland was a real step away for me from the usual non-fiction which I consume.  I have read rather a few memoirs of late which have been set in the United States, but these have dealt almost exclusively with the stark realities of poverty and racism, and the disadvantages which the lower classes often have.  I found it fascinating, therefore, to be given a completely different view of American society, of the upper-class black community who lived in wealthy parts of Chicago.

Jefferson begins her memoir by discussing the perils and contradictions which one must face when writing about oneself: ‘I think it’s too easy to recount unhappy memories when you write about yourself.  You bask in your own innocence.  You revere your grief. You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles…  So let me turn back, subdue my individual self, and enter history.’  She goes on to address elements of black history specific to the United States, and moves on to write about racial stereotyping, general ignorance, media portrayals, and beauty regimens, amongst other themes.

Negroland is a memoir both personal and universal to those of the author’s class and race.  Jefferson sets her own memories, largely of childhood and her years as a young adult, against the wider political and social landscape of America at its ‘crucial historical moments – the civil rights movement, the dawn of feminism, the fallacy of post-racial America’.  When she writes about historical occurrences, she does so using the present-tense.  This is something which I had not seen in a memoir before; there is usually such a distinction between past and present.

When Jefferson grew up, during a highly tumultuous period for black people in the United States, she reflects that children in “Negroland” ‘were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.’  She justifies the choices which she makes in this memoir not to reflect too much upon the present day, and instead focus upon the past, by writing: ‘… I belong to an earlier generation, that of the fifties and sixties: it’s us and our predecessors I want to write of.  Most whites knew little about us; only a few cared to know…  We were taught that we were better than the whites who looked down on us – that we were better than most whites, period.  But that this would rarely if ever be acknowledged by white people, with all their entitlement.  Not the entitlement a government provides, but the kind history bestows.  This is your birthright, says history.’

What I found fascinating, and incredibly sad, was the discussion about other black people Jefferson’s family knew, who felt more comfortable hiding themselves within society by posing as white people: ‘So many in my parents’ world had relatives who’d spent their adult lives as white people of some kind.  Avocational passing was lighthearted.  Shopping at whites-only stores, getting deferential service at whites-only restaurants.  You came home snickering…’.  Also chilling is the space which Jefferson gives to discussing the prevalence of suicide attempts amongst black youths of her generation, and her revelation of her own contemplations of suicide.

Jefferson’s writing is elegant, and certainly has a journalistic flair to it.  She puts across such interesting perspectives, some of which I had never considered before.  Jefferson’s authorial voice is strong, and after I got used to the fragmented style which some of her sentences hold, I found myself pulled in.  At first, Negroland does not take the form of a linear narrative – rather, it is more playful – but the later sections which deal with elements of the author’s schooling have been presented chronologically.  The oft-broken structure has connecting themes within it, and the whole does come together relatively well.  Regardless that there is so much of importance within the book, I did not quite connect with it in the way that I’d hoped.  I felt as though there was a level of detachment within the book, due largely to the creativity which Jefferson employs.

So much has been considered in Negroland, and there is a lot for the reader to mull over long after the final page has been read.  I shall end this review with a most poignant question in Jefferson’s book: ‘What manner of man and woman are we?  Wherever we go we disrupt order.’

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

Powell’s Picks of the Month 2019

Definitely the bookshop which I am most looking forward to visiting at some point, Powell’s Books of Portland, Oregon, has a wealth of wondrous website content.  They include frequent lists of books recommended by their booksellers, and have also collated their Picks of the Month for 2019 onto one handy page (see here).  I have scrolled through this list on many occasions, and thought it a worthwhile exercise to pick ten books from it which I am very much looking forward to reading.

 

1. The Swallows by Lisa Lutz 9781984818232
When Alexandra Witt joins the faculty at Stonebridge Academy, she’s hoping to put a painful past behind her. Then one of her creative writing assignments generates some disturbing responses from students. Before long, Alex is immersed in an investigation of the students atop the school’s social hierarchy — and their connection to something called the Darkroom. She soon inspires the girls who’ve started to question the school’s “boys will be boys” attitude and incites a resistance. But just as the movement is gaining momentum, Alex attracts the attention of an unknown enemy who knows a little too much about her — and what brought her to Stonebridge in the first place.  Meanwhile, Gemma, a defiant senior, has been plotting her attack for years, waiting for the right moment. Shy loner Norman hates his role in the Darkroom, but can’t find the courage to fight back until he makes an unlikely alliance. And then there’s Finn Ford, an English teacher with a shady reputation who keeps one eye on his literary ambitions and one on Ms. Witt. As the school’s secrets begin to trickle out, a boys-versus-girls skirmish turns into an all-out war, with deeply personal — and potentially fatal — consequences for everyone involved.  Lisa Lutz’s blistering, timely tale of revenge and disruption shows us what can happen when silence wins out over decency for too long — and why the scariest threat of all might be the idea that sooner or later, girls will be girls.’

 

97805255413322. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
‘In a remote Polish village, Janina devotes the dark winter days to studying astrology, translating the poetry of William Blake, and taking care of the summer homes of wealthy Warsaw residents. Her reputation as a crank and a recluse is amplified by her not-so-secret preference for the company of animals over humans. Then a neighbor, Big Foot, turns up dead. Soon other bodies are discovered, in increasingly strange circumstances. As suspicions mount, Janina inserts herself into the investigation, certain that she knows whodunit. If only anyone would pay her mind…  A deeply satisfying thriller cum fairy tale, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a provocative exploration of the murky borderland between sanity and madness, justice and tradition, autonomy and fate. Whom do we deem sane? it asks. Who is worthy of a voice?’

 

3. Heads of the Coloured People by Nafissa Thompson Spires 9781501168000
‘Each captivating story plunges headfirst into the lives of new, utterly original characters. Some are darkly humorous — from two mothers exchanging snide remarks through notes in their kids’ backpacks, to the young girl contemplating how best to notify her Facebook friends of her impending suicide — while others are devastatingly poignant — a new mother and funeral singer who is driven to madness with grief for the young black boys who have fallen victim to gun violence, or the teen who struggles between her upper middle class upbringing and her desire to fully connect with black culture.   Thompson-Spires fearlessly shines a light on the simmering tensions and precariousness of black citizenship. Her stories are exquisitely rendered, satirical, and captivating in turn, engaging in the ongoing conversations about race and identity politics, as well as the vulnerability of the black body.’

 

97800628628534. Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken
From the day she is discovered unconscious in a New England cemetery at the turn of the twentieth century — nothing but a bowling ball, a candlepin, and fifteen pounds of gold on her person — Bertha Truitt is an enigma to everyone in Salford, Massachusetts. She has no past to speak of, or at least none she is willing to reveal, and her mysterious origin scandalizes and intrigues the townspeople, as does her choice to marry and start a family with Leviticus Sprague, the doctor who revived her. But Bertha is plucky, tenacious, and entrepreneurial, and the bowling alley she opens quickly becomes Salford’s most defining landmark — with Bertha its most notable resident.  When Bertha dies in a freak accident, her past resurfaces in the form of a heretofore-unheard-of son, who arrives in Salford claiming he is heir apparent to Truitt Alleys. Soon it becomes clear that, even in her death, Bertha’s defining spirit and the implications of her obfuscations live on, infecting and affecting future generations through inheritance battles, murky paternities, and hidden wills.  In a voice laced with insight and her signature sharp humor, Elizabeth McCracken has written an epic family saga set against the backdrop of twentieth-century America. Bowlaway is both a stunning feat of language and a brilliant unraveling of a family’s myths and secrets, its passions and betrayals, and the ties that bind and the rifts that divide.’

 

5. McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh 9780525522768
‘Salem, Massachusetts, 1851: McGlue is in the hold, still too drunk to be sure of name or situation or orientation — he may have killed a man. That man may have been his best friend. Intolerable memory accompanies sobriety. A-sail on the high seas of literary tradition, Ottessa Moshfegh gives us a nasty heartless blackguard on a knife-sharp voyage through the fogs of recollection.’

 

97815011346166. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham
Journalist Adam Higginbotham’s definitive, years-in-the-making account of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster — and a powerful investigation into how propaganda, secrecy, and myth have obscured the true story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest disasters.  Early in the morning of April 26, 1986, Reactor Number Four of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station exploded, triggering history’s worst nuclear disaster. In the thirty years since then, Chernobyl has become lodged in the collective nightmares of the world: shorthand for the spectral horrors of radiation poisoning, for a dangerous technology slipping its leash, for ecological fragility, and for what can happen when a dishonest and careless state endangers its citizens and the entire world. But the real story of the accident, clouded from the beginning by secrecy, propaganda, and misinformation, has long remained in dispute.   Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews conducted over the course of more than ten years, as well as letters, unpublished memoirs, and documents from recently-declassified archives, Adam Higginbotham has written a harrowing and compelling narrative which brings the disaster to life through the eyes of the men and women who witnessed it firsthand. The result is a masterful nonfiction thriller, and the definitive account of an event that changed history: a story that is more complex, more human, and more terrifying than the Soviet myth.  Midnight in Chernobyl is an indelible portrait of one of the great disasters of the twentieth century, of human resilience and ingenuity, and the lessons learned when mankind seeks to bend the natural world to his will — lessons which, in the face of climate change and other threats, remain not just vital but necessary.’

 

7. The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid by Colin Meloy 9780062342461
It is an ordinary Tuesday morning in April when bored, lonely Charlie Fisher witnesses something incredible. Right before his eyes, in a busy square in Marseille, a group of pickpockets pulls off an amazing robbery. As the young bandits appear to melt into the crowd, Charlie realizes with a start that he himself was one of their marks.  Yet Charlie is less alarmed than intrigued. This is the most thrilling thing that’s happened to him since he came to France with his father, an American diplomat. So instead of reporting the thieves, Charlie defends one of their cannons, Amir, to the police, under one condition: he teach Charlie the tricks of the trade.  What starts off as a lesson on pinches, kicks, and chumps soon turns into an invitation for Charlie to join the secret world of the whiz mob, an international band of child thieves who trained at the mysterious School of Seven Bells. The whiz mob are independent and incredibly skilled and make their own way in the world — they are everything Charlie yearns to be. But what at first seemed like a (relatively) harmless new pastime draws him into a dangerous adventure with global stakes greater than he could have ever imagined.’

 

97803853526808. Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger
‘An emotionally engaging, suspenseful new novel from the best-selling author, told in the voice of a renowned physicist: an exploration of female friendship, romantic love, and parenthood — bonds that show their power in surprising ways.  Helen Clapp’s breakthrough work on five-dimensional spacetime landed her a tenured professorship at MIT; her popular books explain physics in plain terms. Helen disdains notions of the supernatural in favor of rational thought and proven ideas. So it’s perhaps especially vexing for her when, on an otherwise unremarkable Wednesday in June, she gets a phone call from a friend who has just died.   That friend was Charlotte Boyce, Helen’s roommate at Harvard. The two women had once confided in each other about everything — in college, the unwanted advances Charlie received from a star literature professor; after graduation, Helen’s struggles as a young woman in science, Charlie’s as a black screenwriter in Hollywood, their shared challenges as parents. But as the years passed, Charlie became more elusive, and her calls came less and less often. And now she’s permanently, tragically gone.  As Helen is drawn back into Charlie’s orbit, and also into the web of feelings she once had for Neel Jonnal — a former college classmate now an acclaimed physicist on the verge of a Nobel Prize–winning discovery — she is forced to question the laws of the universe that had always steadied her mind and heart.’

 

9. Women Talking by Miriam Toews 9781635572582
Eight Mennonite women climb into a hay loft to conduct a secret meeting. For the past two years, each of these women, and over a hundred other girls in their colony, has been repeatedly violated in the night by demons coming to punish them for their sins. Now that the women have learned they were in fact drugged and attacked by a group of men from their own community, they are determined to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm.  While the men of the colony are off in the city, attempting to raise enough money to bail out the rapists and bring them home, these women–all illiterate, without any knowledge of the world outside their community and unable even to speak the language of the country they live in–have very little time to make a choice: Should they stay in the only world they’ve ever known or should they dare to escape?  Told through the “minutes” of the women’s all-female symposium, Toews’s masterful novel uses wry, politically engaged humor to relate this tale of a community wrestling with its own foundational myths. For readers of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Women Talking examines the consequences of religious fundamentalism and communal isolation, and it celebrates the strength of women claiming their own power to decide.’

 

978152476313810. Becoming by Michelle Obama
‘In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era. As First Lady of the United States of America — the first African American to serve in that role — she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare.  In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her — from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it — in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations — and whose story inspires us to do the same.’

 

Have you read any of these?  Which books on the list have piqued your interest?  Are you one of those lucky people that has been to Powell’s already?

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‘The Girl Who Smiled Beads’ by Clemantine Wamariya ****

In 1994, Clemantine Wamariya, then aged six, and her fifteen-year-old sister Claire, fled the Rwandan genocide from their home in the country’s capital, Kigali.  They spent the following six years in seven different African countries, ‘searching for safety – perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindnesses, witnessing inhuman cruelty.’  The sisters had no idea, during this period, whether their parents were alive, or what the fate of their other siblings had been.  Wamariya’s experiences are recorded in The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After.

9781786331472The Girl Who Smiled Beads has been described as ‘urgent, and bracingly original.’  Wamariya’s memoir, states its blurb, ‘captures the true costs of war…  But it is about more than the brutality of war.  It is about owning your experiences, about the life we create: intricately detailed, painful, beautiful, a work in progress.’

I was personally very young during the Rwandan genocide, and learnt nothing about it until long afterwards.  This is the first memoir which I have picked up about the horrifying conflict and its many victims.  When the conflict begins, Wamariya explains that she was in much the same boat; she noticed that things were changing around her, but nobody thought to even attempt to explain why this was the case.  She says, two years before she fled, ‘In my four-year-old imperiousness, I believed I could handle the truth.  I thought I deserved to know.  I demanded it.’  She is left to work things out by herself: ‘Houses were robbed, simply to prove that they could be robbed.  The robbers left notes demanding oil, or sugar, or a TV.  I asked adults to explain, but their faces had turned to concrete, and they nudged me back into childish concerns.’  To Wamariya, the conflict – at first, at least – is therefore comprised of a series of things which are suddenly forbidden, or taken away from her; for instance, her days at kindergarten, her best friend, electricity, and no more dinner guests.

The girls are taken in the dead of night from Kigali to stay with their grandmother, who lived near the Burundi border; they settle in, but soon have to move from here, too.  The sisters run into a nearby banana grove, which other people are already using for shelter, ‘most of the young, some of them bloody with wounds…  The cuts looked too large, too difficult to accomplish, gaping mouths on midnight skin.’  Her experiences of suddenly being homeless, and her change in status, are still difficult for Wamariya to articulate.  She writes: ‘It’s strange, how you go from being a person who is away from home to a person with no home at all.  The place that is supposed to want you has pushed you out.  No other place takes you in.  You are unwanted, by everyone.  You are a refugee.’

The sisters were granted refugee status in the USA when the author was twelve years old, and they settled in Chicago, Illinois.  Even when they move, and feel relatively safe, ‘the war’ is something which is very rarely mentioned between the sisters.  The memoir opens at an interesting point, when the family is reunited on Oprah’s talk show, after Wamariya enters an essay competition.  After this, the entire family, complete with young siblings that neither Clemantine nor Claire had ever met, assemble at Claire’s apartment.  Wamariya writes of the awkwardness and heartbreak of this situation: ‘I sat on Claire’s couch, looking at my strange new siblings, the ones who’d replaced me and Claire.  They looked so perfect, their skin unblemished, their eyes alight, like an excellent fictional representation of a family that could have been mine.  But they didn’t know me and I didn’t know them and the gap between us was a billion miles wide.’

Of her experiences, and the difficulties which she has in recalling everything which she went through, Wamariya writes: ‘… my own life story feels fragmented, like beads unstrung.  Each time I scoop up my memories, the assortment is slightly different.’  Looking back upon her experiences, she says: ‘I did not understand the point of the word genocide then.  I resent and revile it now.  The word is tidy and efficient.  It holds no true emotion.  It is impersonal when it needs to be intimate; cool and sterile when it needs to be gruesome.  The word is hollow, true but disingenuous, a performance, the worst kind of lie.’

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a powerful memoir, filled with poignant scenes and musings.  Wamariya never glosses over any of her experiences; nor does she overdramatise them.  From the outset, she exercises her wise voice, and imparts her deepest and most private thoughts.  ‘I think back to this after,’ she writes, ‘in trying to make sense of the world – how there are people who have so much and people who have so little, and how I fit in with them both.  Often I find myself trying to bridge the two worlds, to show people, either the people with so much or the people with so little, that everything is yours and everything is not yours.’

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‘Bad Blood’ by Lorna Sage ****

Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood has, like many of the books I review, been on my to-read list for years.  I so enjoyed her non-fiction book, Moments of Truth: Twelve Twentieth Century Women Writers, and was eager to read more of her work.  Rather than a collection of critical essays, Bad Blood is a memoir of Sage’s early life in rural Wales during the 1940s and 1950s, and ends with her University graduation.  It was published in 2000, and won the Whitbread Prize for Biography just a week before Sage passed away.

9781841150437Sage’s childhood was ‘dominated’ by her ‘brilliant, bitter grandfather – a drinking, womanising vicar, exiled to a parish’ just over the Welsh border with England.  After the war, when Sage left the ‘gothic eccentricity’ of the vicarage, she moved into a nearby council house with her parents and younger brother, Clive.  Here, she ‘soon discovered that real family life was marked by myths, secrets and disappointments of its own.’

‘A dazzlingly vivid account of one girl’s coming-of-age in post-war provincial Britain,’ writes its blurb, ‘Bad Blood is now universally reclaimed as one of the most extraordinary memoirs of the decade.’  Hilary Mantel praises it ‘both for its generosity of spirit and its intensity as an act of self-recovery’, and Claire Tomalin calls the novel a ‘classic account of childhood’, and Sage herself a ‘writer of rare intelligence’.  Margaret Drabble writes that Bad Blood is a ‘vividly remembered, honest, generous, shocking story…  A fine transformation of pain into something redeeming – I don’t think that’s too grand a word.  A very moving testament.’

Bad Blood has been split into three parts, which cover distinct periods in Sage’s life – the first her early life at the vicarage in Hanmer, the second her transition to grammar school and living with her parents, and the third her surprise pregnancy at aged sixteen, and her determination to receive a University degree.  These sections are peppered with photographs.  Of Hanmer, Sage writes: ‘So Hanmer in the 1940s in many ways resembled Hanmer in the 1920s, or even the late 1800s except that it was more depressed, less populous and more out of step – more and more isolated in time as the years had gone by.’

Sage had such a gift for capturing vivid scenes and unusual characters.  The memoir opens with the following description: ‘Grandfather’s skirts would flap in the wind along the churchyard path and I would hang on.  He often found things to do in the vestry, excuses for getting out of the vicarage (kicking the swollen door, cursing) and so long as he took me he couldn’t get up to much…  He was good at funerals, being gaunt and lined, marked with mortality.  He had a scar down his hollow cheek too, which Grandma had done with the carving knife one of the many times when he came back pissed and incapable.’  Due to the sheer amount of time which Sage spent with her grandparents, who tolerated each other at best, she had very few memories of being with her parents when she was little.  Of her soldier father, away at war, she recalls only that she was picked up by him and was ‘sick down his back’.

Bad Blood presents a multi-generational family portrait; Sage scrapes away at the veneers of her family, and reveals what it has been hidden far beneath the surface.  She writes with such sincerity about her somewhat dysfunctional upbringing, spent more with books than people, and describes the changing post-war landscape with such detail.  Throughout, Sage’s narrative voice is lilting and friendly, and she speaks about such varied things, from fashion, farming, and food, to schooling, swimming, and sharing.  I enjoyed the second and third sections of the memoir the most; in these, Sage played a more active role in proceedings, rather than merely telling the reader about her grandparents and parents in rather an omniscient manner.

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The Book Trail: Wartime Memoirs

I am beginning this instalment of the Book Trail with a memoir I stumbled across, and have added right to the top of my TBR list.  As ever, I have used the tool on Goodreads entitled ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ to create this list.

1. Castles Burning: A Child’s Life in War by Magda Denes 514939
There are few figures in literature as riveting as the precocious nine-year-old Magda Denes who narrates this story. Her stubborn self-command and irrepressible awareness of the absurd make her in her mother’s eyes “impossibly sarcastic, bigmouthed, insolent, and far too smart” for her own good. When her family goes into hiding from the fascist Arrow-Cross, she is torn from the “castle” of intimacies shared with her adored and adoring older brother and plunged into a world of incomprehensible deprivation, separation, and loss. Her rage, and her ability to feel devastating sorrow and still to insist on life, will reach every reader at the core. Recounting an odyssey through the wreckage and homelessness of postwar Europe, Castles Burning embodies a powerful personality, a stunning gift for prose and storytelling, a remarkable sense of humor, and true emotional wisdom and makes a magnificent contribution to the literature of childhood and war.

 

2. Last Waltz in Vienna by George Clare
On February 26, 1938, 17-year-old Georg Klaar took his girlfriend Lisl to his first ball at the Konzerthaus. His family was proudly Austrian; they were also Jewish, and two weeks later came the German Anschluss. This incredibly affecting account of Nazi brutality towards the Jews includes a previously unpublished post-war letter from the author’s uncle to a friend who had escaped to Scotland. This moving epistle passes on the news of those who had survived and the many who had been arrested, deported, murdered, or left to die in concentration camps, and those who had been orphaned or lost their partners or children. It forms a devastating epilogue to what has been hailed as a classic of holocaust literature.

 

10430123. I Remember Nothing More: The Warsaw Children’s Hospital and the Jewish Resistance by Adina Blady-Szwajger
The author was a young Jewish doctor at the children’s hospital in the Warsaw Ghetto from 1940 to 1942. When the hospital was forced to close the children that had survived were taken to the death-camps. Blady-Szwajger became a reluctant courier for the resistance. She left the ghetto and began to carry paper money pinned into her clothing to those in hiding. She and her flat-mate pretended to be good-time girls having fun and threw parties to disguise the coming and going of their male visitors. This heroic memoir pays tribute to all the men and women who paid with their lives for the safety of others.

 

4. Edith’s Story by Edith Velmans
When Hitler invaded Holland in 1939, Edith van Hessen was a popular Dutch high school student. She also happened to be Jewish. In the same month that Anne Frank’s family went into hiding, Edith was sent to live with a courageous Protestant family, took a new name, and survived by posing as a gentile. Ultimately one-third of the hidden Dutch Jews were discovered and murdered; most of Edith’s family perished.   Velmans’s memoir is based on her teenage diaries, wartime letters, and reflections as an adult survivor. In recounting wartime events and the details of her feelings as the war runs its course, Edith’s Story ultimately affirms life, love, and extraordinary courage.

 

5. The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope, and Survival in Theresienstadt by 2211263Hannelore Brenner
From 1942 to 1944, twelve thousand children passed through the Theresienstadt internment camp, near Prague, on their way to Auschwitz. Only a few hundred of them survived the war. In The Girls of Room 28, ten of these children—mothers and grandmothers today in their seventies—tell us how they did it.  The Jews deported to Theresienstadt from countries all over Europe were aware of the fate that awaited them, and they decided that it was the young people who had the best chance to survive. Keeping these adolescents alive, keeping them whole in body, mind, and spirit, became the priority. They were housed separately, in dormitory-like barracks, where they had a greater chance of staying healthy and better access to food, and where counselors (young men and women who had been teachers and youth workers) created a disciplined environment despite the surrounding horrors. The counselors also made available to the young people the talents of an amazing array of world-class artists, musicians, and playwrights–European Jews who were also on their way to Auschwitz. Under their instruction, the children produced art, poetry, and music, and they performed in theatrical productions, most notably Brundibar, the legendary “children’s opera” that celebrates the triumph of good over evil.  In the mid-1990s, German journalist Hannelore Brenner met ten of these child survivors—women in their late-seventies today, who reunite every year at a resort in the Czech Republic. Weaving her interviews with the women together with excerpts from diaries that were kept secretly during the war and samples of the art, music, and poetry created at Theresienstadt, Brenner gives us an unprecedented picture of daily life there, and of the extraordinary strength, sacrifice, and indomitable will that combined—in the girls and in their caretakers—to make survival possible.

 

6. Playing for Time by Fania Fenelon
In 1943, Fania Fenelon was a Paris cabaret singer, a secret member of the Resistance, and a Jew. Captured by the Nazis, she was sent to Auschwitz where she became one of the legendary orchestra girls who used music to survive the Holocaust. This is her personal account of the experience.

 

12520997. The Story of a Life by Aharon Appelfeld
In spare, haunting, almost hallucinogenic prose, the internationally acclaimed, award-winning novelist shares with us–for the first time–the story of his own extraordinary survival and rebirth.  Aharon Appelfeld’s childhood ended when he was seven years old. The Nazis occupied Czernowitz in 1941, penned the Jews into a ghetto, and, a few months later, sent whoever had not been shot or starved to death on a forced march across the Ukraine to a labor camp. As men, women, and children fall away around them, Aharon and his father (his mother was killed in the early days of the occupation) miraculously survive, and Aharon, even more miraculously, escapes from the camp shortly after he arrives there.  The next few years of Aharon’s life are both harrowing and heartrending: he hides, alone, in the Ukrainian forests from peasants who are only too happy to turn Jewish children over to the Nazis; he has the presence of mind to pass himself off as an orphaned gentile when he emerges from the forest to seek work; and, at war’s end, he joins the stream of refugees as they cross Europe on their way to displaced persons’ camps that have been set up for the survivors. He observes the full range of personalities in the camps–exploitation exists side by side with compassion–until he manages to get on a ship bound for Palestine. Once there, Aharon attempts to build a new life while struggling to retain the barely remembered fragments of his old life (everyone urges him simply to forget what he had experienced), and he takes his first, tentative steps as a writer. As he begins to receive national attention, Aharon realizes his life’s calling: to bear witness to the unfathomable. In this unforgettable work of memory, Aharon Appelfeld offers personal glimpses into the experiences that resonate throughout his fiction.

 

8. Shanghai Diary by Ursula Bacon
By the late 1930s, Europe sat on the brink of a world war. As the holocaust approached, many Jewish families in Germany fled to one of the only open ports available to them: Shanghai. Once called “the armpit of the world,” Shanghai ultimately served as the last resort for tens of thousands of Jews desperate to escape Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Against this backdrop, 11-year-old Ursula Bacon and her family made the difficult 8,000-mile voyage to Shanghai, with its promise of safety. But instead of a storybook China, they found overcrowded streets teeming with peddlers, beggars, opium dens, and prostitutes. Amid these abysmal conditions, Ursula learned of her own resourcefulness and found within herself the fierce determination to survive.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which interest you?

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‘First They Killed My Father’ by Loung Ung ****

I have wanted to read Loung Ung’s memoir, First They Killed My Father, for years, and was able to schedule it as the Cambodia stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.   This work, which details Ung’s experiences with the Cambodian genocide, is subtitled ‘A daughter of Cambodia remembers’, and is an incredibly poignant record of a young life spoiled, first by civil war, and then by a dictatorship.

Spending her formative years, and losing half of her family, during Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge seems as vivid for Ung now as it was at the time.  The second youngest of seven children born to a high-ranking government official, Ung led a prosperous life in Phnom Penh.  When the Khmer Rouge Army marched into the city in April 1975, Ung and her family had to flee, moving from one village to another in order to keep hidden; she was just five years old.  Later, the family had to split up almost entirely in order to enable them a stronger chance of survival.  Through various means – ‘execution, starvation, disease, and forced labour’ – the Khmer Rouge is thought to have killed almost a quarter of Cambodia’s population, estimated at a horrifying 2 million citizens.9780756984823

First published in 2000, Ung begins her recollections at the point of being driven out of her home in 1975.  The memoir spans just five years, but is incredibly tumultuous.  Ung has chosen to present her memoir using the present tense, which gives it a real sense of urgency.  From the very beginning, Ung’s childish innocence of the time shines through: ‘Pa always defends me – to everybody.  He often says that people just don’t understand how cleverness works in a child and that all these troublesome things I do are actually signs of strength and intelligence.  Whether or not Pa is right, I believe him.  I believe everything he tells me.’  The prose continues in this rather simplistic manner throughout; as she tells her story, Ung seems to inhabit the voice of her childhood.

The cultural information which Ung imparts alongside her own memoirs is fascinating.  There is a finely honed sense of place and atmosphere throughout.  When they are forced to flee, Ung makes clear that every family, no matter their position or standing, wwere driven out of cities all over Cambodia over the course of several days: ‘People pour out of their homes and into the streets, moving very slowly…  Everywhere, people scream their good-byes to those who choose to stay behind; tears pour from their eyes…  the world moves in hurried confusion from the city.’  The landscape changes rapidly as the family leave Phnom Penh in their truck: ‘… the wide, paved boulevard gives way to windy, dusty roads that are no more than wagon trails.  Tall elephant grass and prickly, brown brush have replaced Phnom Penh’s blooming flowers and tall trees.’

Despite her age, Ung is able to understand the roots of what drives her family away from all they know: ‘Keav [her older sister] tells me the soldiers claim to love Cambodia and its people very much.  I wonder then why they are this mean if they like us so much.  I cheered for them earlier today, but now I am afraid of them.’  Her family live in constant fear, and this trickles down to Ung.  She writes: ‘At five years old, I am beginning to know what loneliness feels like, silent and alone and suspecting that everyone wants to hurt me.’  The young Ung has so much strength and determination, which is incredible given the conditions she is forced to live under.

First They Killed My Father is harrowing, and incredibly moving.  Ung describes, along with her own experiences, those things which affected all of her fellow Cambodians.  So much changed; religion was banned, and children were made to work instead of pursuing their education.  People were made to live under horrendous conditions: ‘The population in the village is growing smaller by the day.  Many people have died, mostly from starvation, some from eating poisonous food, others killed by soldiers.  Our family is slowly starving to death and yet, each day, the government reduces our food ration.  Hunger, always there is hunger.  We have eaten everything that is edible, from rotten leaves on the ground to the roots we dig up.’

As time passes, Ung becomes almost entirely desensitised to the death and suffering around her.  She does, however, still retain some knowledge of the wonder of the world, which she was familiar with during her time in Phnom Penh: ‘The next evening, while sitting with [her brother] Kim outside on the steps of our hut, I think how the world is still somehow beautiful even when I feel no joy at being alive within it.  It is still dark and the shimmering sunset of red, gold, and purple over the horizon makes the sky look magical.  Maybe there are gods living up there after all.  When are they going to come down and bring peace to our land?’  First They Killed My Father is a startling and important record of a ruined childhood, which I would urge everyone to read.

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‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ by Azar Nafisi ****

Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi’s memoir of her life in Iran, was one of my choices for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  It is yet another book which I have been wanting to read for years, and whilst in some ways it was really nothing like I was expecting it to be, I still very much enjoyed reading it.  I have seen a few readers of late saying that they are tired of reading books about books; I personally adore them, and hope to never share those sentiments.  I can also safely say that I have never read a literary memoir quite like this one, which has been translated into 32 languages since its publication.

9780241246238The crux of the memoir – and something which I admit I thought would be focused upon a lot more than it was – is as follows: ‘In Iran in the late ’90s, Azar Nafisi and seven young women – her former students – gathered at her house every Thursday to discuss forbidden works of Western literature.’  The blurb promises that the personal stories of these women ‘intertwine with what they are reading’, and through their experience, Nafisi ‘offers a fascinating portrait of the Iran-Iraq war and gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women’s lives in revolutionary Iran’.  Thus the stage is set.

Nafisi, once a literature teacher at the University of Tehran, left for America in 1997, after being expelled from her position for refusing to wear a veil.  Her account is written with a voice which feels candid and sincere, and which is sometimes acerbically funny, but which is filled with an underlying fear that permeates every daily activity.  Nafisi begins her memoir thus: ‘I often teasingly reminded my students of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and asked, Which one of you will finally betray me?  For I am a pessimist by nature and I was sure at least one would turn against me.’

Nafisi endeavoured to make her book club as inclusive as was possible.  Whilst one male attended from time to time, it was much safer to have a gathering solely of women, as one never knew who was watching, or keeping tabs on who was entering Nafisi’s city centre apartment.  The book club is more than simply a place of discussion; through it, Nafisi is able to offer her students a relative freedom.  ‘In selecting my students,’ she writes, ‘I did not take into consideration their ideological or religious backgrounds.  Later, I would count it as the class’s great achievement that such a mixed group, with different and at times conflicting backgrounds, personal as well as religious and social, remained so loyal to its goals and ideals.’

Throughout, Nafisi urges the reader to try and understand her difficult position, and her life as a woman in Tehran: ‘Against the tyranny of time and politics, imagine us the way we sometimes didn’t dare to imagine ourselves: in our most private and secret moments, in the most extraordinarily ordinary instances of life, listening to music, falling in love, walking down the shady streets or reading Lolita in Tehran.  And then imagine us again with all this confiscated, driven underground, taken away from us.’

The memoir has been split into four parts – ‘Lolita’, ‘Gatsby’, ‘James’, and ‘Austen’.  The section on The Great Gatsby looks solely at that novel, and no other works by F. Scott Fitzgerald; in the chapter about Lolita, however, many works of Nabokov’s are analysed and discussed.  In this way, it feels a little uneven.  Some of the chapters focus more upon the political situation in Iran, and those things which have been banned, whereas others are made up almost entirely of reflections upon the clandestine book club, and their discussions.  Of this book club, Nafisi writes: ‘Looking back, I am amazed at how much we learned without even noticing it.  We were, to borrow from Nabokov, to experience how the ordinary pebble of ordinary life could be transformed into a jewel through the magic eye of fiction.’

The Iranian regime, and later the war, are discussed alongside the book club; both, Nafisi notes, were ‘unpredictable’, and life in Iran ‘would go through cycles of some tolerance, followed by a crackdown.’  As with almost every dictatorial regime, there were many restrictions enforced against women; they were reprimanded if they ran up the stairs, for instance, or if makeup was found in their handbags.  The regime was also incredibly restrictive with regard to the curriculum, and expelled many students for a variety of reasons.  Nafisi reflects that Emily Bronte was not taught ‘because she appeared to condone adultery’, and that the word ‘wine’ had to be removed from the stories of Ernest Hemingway before it could be taught.

I found Reading Lolita in Tehran to be an immersive and insightful reading experience, with such a lot of promise, which it largely reached.  A lot of my friends’ reactions have been incredibly mixed, but there is a lot within the pages of this memoir to reflect upon and admire.  The effects of living under Sharia law are discussed at length, as are the tiny revolutions which Nafisi and her students would make to regain a little of their control over themselves, at least.

The overarching message here is that reading can save you, in more ways than one.  Nafisi puts this best, writing: ‘There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom.’

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‘Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia’ by Sigrid Rausing ****

I chose Sigrid Rausing’s Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia as part of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  I was quite looking forward to it, particularly as I have included very little non-fiction on my list.  It seemed as though it would offer something a bit different, and whilst a lot of the themes are similar to some of the other Eastern European literature which I read before it, the very fact that it is a memoir makes it all the more fascinating.

9780802122179Between 1993 and 1994, Sigrid Rausing, a Swedish anthropology student working towards her PhD at University College London, travelled to Estonia to undertake fieldwork.  She stayed in a former Soviet Union border protection zone named Noarootsi.  She met and interviewed many different people for her project.  The book’s blurb proclaims that ‘Rausing’s conversations with the local people touched on many subjects: the economic privations of post-Soviet existence; the bewildering influx of Western products; and the Swedish background of many of their people.’  In this memoir, published twenty years after her fieldwork ended, Rausing reflects upon history and political repression, and the way in which the wider world affected the individuals whom she met.

Of the aims of her PhD, Rausing writes that she wanted to explore the themes of history and memory in Estonia: ‘I was there to study the local perception and understanding of historical events in the context of the Soviet repression and the censorship of history.’  The collective farm which she stayed and worked on folded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and was ‘officially closed down in February 1993, following a vote by all the members in which just one person voted for its continued existence.’  Rausing lived and worked in the village, immersing herself as much as she was able into gatherings and the like, and trying her best to learn the very difficult Estonian language.

One gets a feel for Rausing’s surroundings almost as soon as the book begins.  She writes: ‘The rest of the villages on the peninsula – bedraggled collections of grey wooden houses with thatched rooves, sometimes propped up by shoddy white brick – were like villages all over the Soviet Union at that particular time.  Forgotten places sinking into quiet poverty.’  Rausing gives many examples of the visible changes within Estonia following the breakdown of the Soviet Union, and the effects which poverty and strict rule had: ‘Haapsalu was the nearest town to my prospective field site.  It had been a spick-and-span little coastal town in the 1930s, a summer spa where people came for mineral mud baths.  Now, the baths were long since gone, the paint on the beautiful wooden houses flaking and unkempt…  The main street was wide and muddy, with many shops selling few things, and almost no cars.’

The most fascinating element of Everything is Wonderful is the way in which Rausing manages to be at once a participant and an outsider in Noarootsi.  Because of her position, she is able to gather so many different perspectives on issues affecting Estonian people.  She builds a full picture of life for those villagers and townsfolk ‘forgotten’ by the wider world, often lived in poverty: ‘The people on the collective farm had little connection either with the land or with high culture.  They just got by, day by day, enduring the uncertainty, the confusion, and the quiet fear: fear of unemployment, fear of Russia, fear of the future.’  Everything is Wonderful is stark and bleak, but very human; it is at once enlightening and harrowing.  Rausing’s memoir is a fascinating and important piece of social history, told from a position of retrospect, but working from the notes which she collected whilst on her fieldwork trip.

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