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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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‘How Not to be a Boy’ by Robert Webb ****

‘”RULES FOR BEING A MAN: Don’t Cry; Love Sport; Play Rough; Drink Beer; Don’t Talk About Feelings”

But Robert Webb has been wondering for some time now: are those rules actually any use? To anyone? Looking back over his life, from schoolboy crushes (on girls and boys) to discovering the power of making people laugh (in the Cambridge Footlights with David Mitchell), and from losing his beloved mother to becoming a husband and father, Robert Webb considers the absurd expectations boys and men have thrust upon them at every stage of life. Hilarious and heartbreaking, How Not To Be a Boy explores the relationships that made Robert who he is as a man, the lessons we learn as sons and daughters, and the understanding that sometimes you aren’t the Luke Skywalker of your life – you’re actually Darth Vader.’

9781786890085Robert Webb’s How Not to be a Boy was one of my most highly anticipated releases of 2017. Stephen Fry writes in his review ‘I enjoyed every page’, and without sounding like a suck-up, I very much did too. Webb is one of my favourite comedians, and I still return to binging on the Peep Show box set every year with my boyfriend.

How Not to be a Boy is unlike a conventional memoir, in that Webb has placed his own experiences and memories within the broader framework of what it means to be a boy and a man in our society. He tackles widespread beliefs in a series of different chapters, and shows that ultimately, men can be sensitive too, and should be able to express themselves as they wish, rather than conform to the pressures of societal expectations. Of course – and this sounds incredibly obvious, but does not seem to be much acknowledged – it’s not just women who are affected by these. Men are expected to be macho and in control, things which Webb, throughout his life, is honest about having not been.

Webb is candid with his revelations, and one warms to his narrative voice immediately. It is distinctive; he writes with much the same wit, verve, and humour displayed in his work with the equally great David Mitchell. The imagined conversations which take place between Webb’s present self, and the figure of him as a child or young man are an interesting, and quite funny, touch.

Webb, throughout, is shrewd and wise. He writes: ‘But more often, when we tell a boy to “act like a man”, we’re effectively saying, “Stop expressing those feelings.” And if the boy hears that often enough, it actually starts to sound uncannily like, “Stop feeling those feelings.”‘ The preconceptions which Webb writes so eloquently about, and explores so well, form the backbone of How Not to be a Boy. His memoir has been almost perfectly balanced with its sadness and humour, and its execution feels very natural.

I shall end this review with rather a profound observation of Webb’s: ‘I want the same thing for boys, men, girls, women and anyone who grew up feeling that none of these worlds held any meaning for them. I want them all to have the freedom to express their individual and contradictory selves with confidence and humility.’

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