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One From the Archive: ‘Anne Frank: The Biography’ by Melissa Muller *****

In honour of Anne Frank’s birthday on the 12th of June, I thought it would be fitting to repost a review of one of the best biographies I feel I have ever read.

I purchased a revised and expanded edition of Melissa Muller’s Anne Frank: The Biography on an affecting trip to the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam last year.  I have been so looking forward to reading it, but for some reason – emotional turmoil over Anne’s story, I expect, which never fails to bring me to tears – it took me some time to pick it up.  The Sunday Telegraph deems Muller’s biography ‘sensitive, serious and scrupulous’, and the Independent believes it to be an ‘accurate and honest portrait’.  The New York Times writes that Anne Frank: The Biography ‘acts as a supplement to the diary, filling in Anne’s fragmentary view of her own life’.

9781408842102I have read Anne’s own diary – which has sold more than thirty million copies in over seventy languages to date – countless times, as well as rather a few books about her, but Anne Frank: The Biography has become one of my absolute favourites.  It has been translated from its original German by Rita and Robert Kimber.  In this updated edition, Muller ‘details new theories surrounding the family’s betrayal, revelations about the pressure put on their helpers by the Nazi party and the startling discovery that the Franks had applied for a visa to the US.’

In her foreword, Muller writes of Anne’s importance: ‘Over the past sixty years, Anne Frank has become a universal symbol of the oppressed in a world of violence and tyranny.  Her name invokes humanity, tolerance, human rights, and democracy; her image is the epitome of optimism and the will to live.’  Upon her initial reading of Anne’s diary, Muller had many questions which were left unanswered; this inspired her to research and write Anne Frank: The Biography.  At this point, she says, ‘my search began – initially in the 1990s – to search for the person behind the legend, a search for the incidents and events that shaped the life and personality of Annelies Marie Frank.’  Her aim, she goes on, ‘was to gather as many fragments of the mosaic as possible and create as authentic a picture of Anne’s brief life as I could, illuminating the familial and social circumstances that provided the foundation of her life and left their mark on it.’

Anne Frank: The Biography opens with a copy of the Frank and Hollander family trees, which become useful to refer to when grandparents and great-grandparents are introduced into the narrative.  The initial chapter of the book opens on a scene in August 1944.  This, at first, seems like an ordinary day in the annexe in which Anne and her family, along with others, are hiding, but it proves to be the day on which they are discovered by the Dutch Nazis.  After they have been taken away, Muller describes how Miep and Bep, office workers who helped them to hide, retrieve Anne’s diary, not reading a single page so as to protect her privacy.  They hoped to be able to give it back to her after the war.

The second chapter then begins with Anne’s birth in Frankfurt, where her family lived on the outskirts of the city.  Of their new arrival, the Franks ‘had worried that Margot might be jealous of the baby, but Margot laughed with delight when she saw her.  Anne’s ears stuck out comically, and her wild black hair was silky and soft.’  A chronological timeline is followed from this chapter onward, and we are able to chart Anne’s progress as she grows, and becomes more independent.  Particular attention is paid to the craft of Anne’s writing, wishing as she did to become a novelist when she grew up.  ‘Her style,’ Muller writes, ‘improved rapidly, with astonishing speed considering her age…  The more she wrote, the sharper her observations became and the clearer her expression of those observations; the keener, too, her understanding of others and – as if she could step outside herself and look back in – of herself as well.  What she had begun in adolescent dreaminess ultimately achieved, in many passages, a maturity that was as convincing as it was astonishing.’

Political and social occurrences, particularly those which relate to the restrictions placed upon Jewish people, run alongside the lives of the Frank family.  This social context has been provided throughout, and adds depth and understanding.  Upon the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, for instance, Muller states: ‘In one day the social structure of Holland had been transformed.  Where once there had been rich and poor, an upper and a lower class, a right wing and a left wing, and various religious blocs, now only one criterion distinguished good from bad, friend from enemy: was a person anti-German or pro-German?’  Along with historical facts, Muller weaves in the interested and intelligent Anne’s own opinions.  Upon the surrender of the Netherlands, ‘Anne was outraged…  Surrender was a concept she was hearing about for the first time, and she didn’t like the sound of it.  It didn’t suit her character.’

Counter to its title, Anne Frank: The Biography is not simply a biographical account of Anne; it includes details of both her immediate and extended family members on both sides, as well as accounts of family friends, and her schoolmates.  Photographs have been dotted throughout, which adds to the narrative, and shows those around Anne, first in Germany, and then in Amsterdam, where her family moved when she was small.  Perhaps most moving in terms of these portraits is the impression we receive of her doting father, Otto.  When writing about Anne and Margot’s friends in Amsterdam, Muller says: ‘The greatest delight of all was Mr. Frank.  His wife was always there and always friendly, but the children hardly noticed her; they took such things for granted in mothers.  But Otto Frank, at almost six feet a tall man for those days, was special.  With Mr. Frank you could talk and joke about anything.  He made up games, told stories, always had a comforting word, and seemed to forgive Anne everything…  Otto’s high spirits were truly infectious.  And when he was at home he spent more time with his children than most other fathers did.’  Of course, Anne is always the central focus here, but more of an understanding of her character can be gained from seeing those around her.

Muller is so understanding of Anne’s character and qualities, and notes how great an effect being in the annexe had for her: ‘At a time when a young person is recalcitrant and restless, defiant and temperamental, full of questions and searching for answers, baffled, helpless, and often irritable, Anne had no outlets for her feelings, no way to let off steam…  Anne herself described the period from 1942 until well into 1943 as a difficult time.  In the long days of loneliness and despair and of conflict not only with her housemates but also and primarily with herself, Kitty and the diary became her closest confidants.’

Muller’s prose style makes Anne Frank: The Biography a very easy book to read; it is intelligent and measured, not to mention packed with detail, but it still feels readily accessible.  The biography is considerate and meticulously researched and, as one would expect, is both touching and harrowing throughout.  Anne Frank: The Biography is a moving and detailed tribute to a remarkable young woman, and works as the perfect companion to The Diary of a Young Girl.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Virago Book of Women Travellers’, edited by Mary Morris and Larry O’Connor ****

9781860492129‘Some of the extraordinary women whose writings are including in this collection are observers of the world in which they wander; their prose rich in description, remarkable in detail. Mary McCarthy conveys the vitality of Florence while Willa Cather’s essay on Lavandou foreshadows her descriptions of the French countryside in later novels. Others are more active participants in the culture they are visiting, such as Leila Philip, as she harvests rice with chiding Japanese women, or Emily Carr, as she wins the respect and trust of the female chieftain of an Indian village in Northern Canada. Whether it is curiosity about the world, a thirst for adventure or escape from personal tragedy, all of these women are united in that they approached their journeys with wit, intelligence, compassion and empathy for the lives of those they encountered along the way. Features writing from Gertrude Bell, Edith Wharton, Isabella Bird, Kate O’Brien, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and many others.’

I am an enormous fan of Virago, as anyone who knows even a little of my reading habits can probably discern.  To my delight, I spotted The Virago Book of Women Travellers online at a ridiculously low price, and decided to treat myself (another of my favourite things in life is travelling, after all!).  I had originally intended to read it over the Christmas holidays, but true to form at such busy times, I did not really get a chance to do so.  I thus picked it up in February, just before a wonderful trip to The Netherlands.

The selection of extracts here is extensive and varied, and encompasses an incredible scope of geographical locations.  Societally and historically it is most interesting, and some extracts – Beryl Markham’s about elephant hunting, for instance – are very of their time (thankfully so, in this case!).  Some of my favourite authors were collected here – Vita Sackville-West, and Rebecca West, as well as Rose Macaulay.  As ever with such collections, there were several entries which I did not quite enjoy as much as the rest, but each was undoubtedly fascinating in its own way.  I very much enjoyed the ‘can do’ attitude which every single one of the writers had, regardless of circumstance or destination, and very much liked the way in which this singular thread bound all of them together.  The chronological ordering made for a splendid reading experience.

The Virago Book of Women Travellers is a marvellous volume in which to dip here and there, to reconnect with old favourites, and to discover new writers to find, and new women to admire.  I adore the idea of thematic travelogues, and there is something really rather special and inspiring about this one.  It has brought some marvellous women, both in terms of personality and writing ablity, to my attention, and I can only conclude this review by saying that it is a joy for any women traveller to read.

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One From the Archive: ‘Dew on the Grass’ by Eiluned Lewis ****

Eiluned Lewis is one of those wonderful female authors who wrote from the heart about places she knew and loved, and who appears – like so many authors of her generation – to have been unjustly forgotten.  First published in 1934, Dew on the Grass tells the autobiographical story of a young girl and her siblings growing up in the Montgomeryshire countryside in Wales.  Among Lewis’ concerns here are ‘gender domesticity, Welsh culture and the rural environment.’9781870206808

The novel has been reprinted in recent years by Honno, a focused press which focuses on translating works by Welsh women into English, and in bringing neglected novels back for new generations to read.  The insightful introduction which accompanies the novel has been written by Katie Gramich, a Professor at Cardiff University.  She writes at the outset of the reception of Dew on the Grass, which was ‘phenomenally successful’ upon its publication, ‘attracting positive reviews from literary critics, going rapidly through a number of editions, being translated into several languages, and winning the Gold Medal of the Book Guild for the best novel of the year.’  Gramich then goes on to speak of Lewis’ own life.  I knew next to nothing about the author when I began to read, but feel rather familiar with her after learning about her early life, and the things which inspired her to begin a writing career.

Lewis’ focus within Dew on the Grass certainly lies with her child characters.  Gramich writes that ‘both mother and father are very much background figures in Lewis’s fictional world, where the norm, the central consciousness is that of the child.’  She goes on to compare Lewis to Dylan Thomas in their use of the child’s viewpoint, ‘though her work in this mode predates his by several years…  Like Thomas’s, Lewis’s child-world is not pure idyll but a place of imagination and delight hedged around with menace, punishment and disappointment.’  Gramich also gives a comparison between Lewis and Katherine Mansfield, one of my all-time favourite authors, which piqued my interest in the novel still further.

Rather than exploring the working class in her novel, as a lot of her contemporaries tended to do, Lewis looks at an upper middle-class family named the Gwyns, who are Anglo-Welsh landed gentry.  Nine-year-old Lucy, ‘dreamy, accident-prone and acutely alive to the world around her’ is the second eldest daughter.  She is a thoughtful child, and continually muses about the world around her.

Lewis’ prose is described as ‘sensuous, evocative and nostalgic’, and it often manages to be all of these things at once.  Of the house in which Lucy and her family live, for instance, she writes: ‘Succeeding generations of farmers and small gentry had added to the house, here a storey and there a room, heedless of symmetry or foundations, so that on starry nights, when the wind rushed… walls rocked, joists groaned and cracks widened ominously in the plaster.’  Dew on the Grass is filled with charming and touching details: ‘The names of their [the Gwyns’] four children, who grew up at Pengarth, were recorded by a pencilled legend on the stable door of stout oak.  It ran “Delia, Lucy, Maurice (in boots), Miriam (barefoot)” – being a memorial of the height of the young Gwyns at the time of this story.’

Movement, particularly with regard to the younger characters, has been captured beautifully: ‘Released at length from the spell of Louise’s eye and the cool, leafshadowed nursery, they danced out on the lawn, shouting, hopping with excitement, ready for something adventurous, scarcely able to contain their glee.’  The natural world of Lewis’ novel has been romanticised in the gentlest and loveliest of manners; it never feels overdone or repetitive, and is largely filled with purity and charm.

The structure of Dew on the Grass fits the plot wonderfully.  It is made up of a lot of short story-length vignettes, and is overall a rather a quiet, but highly engaging, book.  Dew on the Grass is a celebration of Welsh life, and of childhood; it is clear that Lewis’ homeland was much cherished by her.  Filled with an innocent and nostalgic charm, the novel is quite quaint in some ways, but thought-provoking in others.  This forgotten novel certainly presents a bygone way of life, filled with beauty and sheer delight.

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One From the Archive: ‘Have the Men Had Enough?’ by Margaret Forster *****

First published in 2018.

Margaret Forster’s 1989 novel, Have the Men Had Enough?, is an incredibly astute familial saga with an ageing matriarch, Grandma, as its central focus.  At the outset of the novel, Grandma is clearly beginning to lose her focus, believing that her father and brothers will be coming home shortly, and that she needs to cook their dinner.

Have the Men Had Enough? is told from two perspectives, those of Grandma’s daughter-9780099455646in-law, Jenny McKay, and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Hannah.  Of Grandma’s diagnosis, the family are told ‘the long-term memory remains after the short-term has gone.  Grandma cannot remember what she had for dinner an hour ago but she can remember every detail of what she ate on the train journeys to the Highlands in the 1920s.  And it makes her happy.  It does not seem to worry her in the least that she cannot remember her husband’s first name or the colour of his eyes or what he liked and did not like.  He remains in her memory as the subject of a few unflattering anecdotes and, if she had to sum him up, she is content to say he was “a man’s man”.’  Despite these two perspectives, and their sometimes conflicting views, Grandma is always the focus of the narrative; we learn about the other characters largely with regard to their actions toward, and feelings about, her.

It was fascinating, and often saddening, to see such a story unfold from the perspective of a family who have different beliefs as to what would be the best course of action for Grandma’s ongoing care.  Her daughter Bridget, a nurse, lives next door, and is determined to keep caring for her at home for as long as she can manage.  One of her sons, Stuart, keeps away, saying that he does not want the hassle of involvement.  Her son Charlie, Jenny’s husband, funds Grandma’s flat and nursing expenses.  Whilst they live nearby, and Jenny does a lot to help from time to time, both find the process exhausting.  Jenny expresses her fears about caring for Grandma: ‘I want to act now, to protect us all.  And yes, I am afraid, afraid of what it will do to us all if we keep Grandma in our midst to the bitter end.’  Granddaughter Hannah is incredibly observant, continually questioning what would be best for Grandma; at first, she asks, ‘Haven’t the women had enough too?’, before veering back and forth on the idea of Grandma being cared for in their family home, something which her brother Adrian wants dearly.  Hannah is concerned throughout with Grandma’s happiness, and treats her with tenderness and understanding at all times.

Certainly poignant, Have the Men Had Enough? raises a wealth of important questions about ageing, and who will care for us when we reach a stage at which we are no longer able to care for ourselves.  Each of the characters is forced, at points, to reflect upon their opinions of what would be best for themselves and for Grandma.  This thought-provoking reflection makes the novel feel eminently human, and so well balanced; we recognise the discomfort of each of the characters in turn.

Others have written that Have the Men Had Enough? is a difficult book to read, both in terms of prose and content, one which takes time and concentration.  Certainly, Forster’s writing is intelligent, but from the very beginning, I found it immersive.  The story itself was a little draining at times, and one feels terribly for the McKays, in having to make such a difficult decision which will ultimately impact upon and affect them all.  There is a wonderful variation to the novel, given the range of characters, opinions, and voices.

Whilst a devoted fan of Forster’s biography of Daphne du Maurier, and devouring one of her more recent efforts, The Unknown Bridesmaid, a few years ago, I am baffled as to why it has taken me so long to read more of her work.  Forster is an author who has published a wealth of books which appeal to me, and I will certainly try my best to read more of them over the coming months.  I shall conclude this review with a wonderful quote by Hilary Mantel, which sums up my thoughts on the novel: ‘It is close to life in a way we hardly expect a novel to be, and finally very moving.’

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One From the Archive: ‘Cold Spring Harbor’ by Richard Yates ****

First published in March 2015.

I absolutely love what I have read of Yates’ work so far, and could not wait to begin Cold Spring Harbor, the 54th book on my Classics Club list.  Cold Spring Harbor is one of his much later books, first published in 1986, and dedicated to Kurt Vonnegut.

Cold Spring Harbor is the small Long Island village in which much of the novel takes place.  The story’s beginning felt fresh and almost F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque: ‘All the sorrows of Evan Shepard’s loutish adolescence were redeemed at seventeen, in 1935, when he fell in love with automobiles.  His persistent bullying of weaker boys, his thick-witted ways of offending girls, his inept and embarrassing ventures into petty crime – none of those things mattered any more, except as bad memories’.  Yates goes on to set out Evan’s character immediately, as well as the ways in which he is perceived by those around him: ‘And it was always a pleasure for his father, Charles Shepard, just to stand at a window and watch him working alone out there in the sun.  Nobody could have guessed a year ago that this particular boy would ever learn to organize and focus his mind on a useful job of work; and wasn’t that the beginning of maturity?  Wasn’t it what helped a man develop will and purpose in his life?’

Yates does not just focus upon Evan (of whom he writes ‘it didn’t seem right for anyone so splendid-looking to have so little going on in his head’); rather, he gives us the history of the Shepard family in a thorough yet succinct manner.  He strikes a wonderful balance between Evan’s parents; his father’s stint in the army and his mother Grace’s nerves giving way prevail.  One gets the impression immediately that Yates knows everything about his characters, and the things which matter to them the most: ‘At certain moments, if the light and the alcohol worked to her advantage, Grace could still be the prettiest girl at the Officers’ Club dance’.  Charles’ perception of his wife is as follows: ‘Most of the time – this afternoon, for example – he found he would rather not look at her at all because she would only look ruined: heavy, dissatisfied, apparently grieving in silence for the loss of herself’.

A hurried marriage soon ensues for Evan with a girl from school, Mary Donovan, who had ‘the kind of pretty gace that other girls called “saucy”‘.  Yates describes the way in which ‘it was a marriage that might have occurred much later, when they were both a few years older, if Mary hadn’t found she was pregnant in the very early months of their romance’.  Both are unhappy almost from the word go: ‘Oh, if it weren’t for the burden of knowing Evan adored her, that he’d be terribly lost without her – if it weren’t for that, she knew she would now be putting her mind to finding some way out of all this’.

When the Shepard’s car breaks down in an unfamiliar part of New York, they call upon a woman named Gloria Drake, who lives in a nearby house, in order to use her telephone.  It is here that Evan meets her daughter, Rachel, whom he swiftly falls in love with: ‘She was herself: a little thin and soft, but with a wonderful look of having nearly come to life…  this was a girl you could cherish and protect’.

Cold Spring Harbor is incredibly well crafted, and deals, above all, with human emotion and the relationships which we forge with one another.  Yates also demonstrates the way in which circumstances can alter people almost unrecognisably.  He is startlingly perceptive throughout, and one of the main strengths of the novel is the way in which he views the same event from so many different angles.

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One From the Archive: ‘Kamchatka’ by Marcelo Figueras ****

First published in 2018.

Marcelo Figueras’ Kamchatka, which is set in Argentina, was the final South American book of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  Kamchatka, which has been translated from its original Spanish by Frank Wynne, is a coming of age story which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Kamchatka was a novel which I have never seen reviewed on blogs or Goodreads, and was so intrigued by the storyline that I did not consider any other books set in Argentina for my challenge.  It seems to have slipped beneath the radar somewhat.  Regardless, there are many positive reviews which adorn the paperback copy of the novel.  In her review in The Times, for instance, Kate Saunders says that ‘Figueras writes with power and insight about the ways in which a child uses imagination to make sense of a terrifying and baffling reality.’  The Financial Times call it ‘brilliantly observed’ and ‘heartbreaking’.

9780802170873Kamchatka follows ten-year-old Harry, whose name is a false one he has to adopt after his family are forced to flee, calling himself after Harry Houdini, an obsession of his.  Harry, whose world is made up of make-believe and superheroes, lives in Buenos Aires during the 1976 coup d’etat.  His father leaves the family – Harry, his mother, and his younger brother, who calls himself Simon – at a petrol station on the outskirts of the city: ‘He kissed me, his stubble scratching my cheek, then climbed into the Citroen.  The car moved off along the undulating ribbon of road, a green bubble bobbing into view with every hill, getting smaller and smaller until I couldn’t see it any more.  I stood there for a long while, my game of Risk tucked under my arm.  Until my abuelo, my grandpa, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Let’s go home.”‘

Figueras uses short chapters to tell Harry’s story, and this structure works well.  We are given a myriad of memories, which are not ordered chronologically, but which help to build a full picture, both of our protagonist and the conditions in which he is living under.

Kamchatka is often profound, particularly in those instances where Figueras discusses our growth as people in the most beautiful and thoughtful ways: ‘Who I have been, who I am, who I will be are all in continual conversation, each influencing the other.  That my past and my present together determine my future sounds like a fundamental truth, but I suspect that my future joins forces with the present to do the same thing to my past.’  Figueras also talks at length about childhood, and the way in which young people view what is around them, and what they are familiar with, as the entire world: ‘When you’re a kid, the world can be bounded in a nutshell.  In geographical terms, a child’s universe is a space that comprises home, school and – possibly – the neighbourhood where your cousins or your grandparents live.  In my case, the universe sat comfortably within a small area of Flores that ran from the junction of Bayoca and Arellaneda (my house), to the Plaza Flores (my school).’

Figueras has a wonderful way of being able to interpret different occurrences, particularly with regard to the political unrest in Argentina, through a child’s eyes: ‘When the coup d’etat came, in 1976, a few days before school started, I knew straight away that things were going to get ugly.  The new president had a peaked cap and a huge moustache; you could tel from his face that he was a bad guy.’  Kamchatka is a rich and thought-provoking novel, which offers an interesting and fully-developed perspective on one of the most defining periods of recent history in Argentina.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Emperor’s Children’ by Claire Messud *****

First published in 2019.

After adoring Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, and very much enjoying her latest novel, The Burning Girl, which I read in Florida last year, I was keen to pick up another of her books.  I chose a gorgeous Picador Classics edition of The Emperor’s Children, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  The novel is set in New York in 2001, when ‘the whole world shifts’.  In it, Messud explores ‘how utterly we are defined by the times in which we live.’

The Independent on Sunday calls Messud’s 2006 novel ‘a masterpiece’, and The Times deems it ‘thrillingly real, alive and utterly convincing… [an] intensely pleasurable reminder of the possibilities of the English language’.  The New York Times concurs, writing that ‘Messud does a nimble, quicksilver job of portraying her central characters from within and without – showing us their pretensions, frailties and self-delusions, even as she delineates their secret yearnings and fears.’  It is, promises its blurb, a novel which ‘brings us face to face with the enduring gap between who we are and who we long to be.’

9781447289418The Emperor’s Children focuses on four characters, three of whom – Danielle Minkoff, Marina Thwaite, and Julius Clarke – became firm friends whilst studying at Brown University during the 1990s.  They are ‘young, bright New Yorkers living at America’s beating heart in the early years of the twenty-first century’, and are joined.  The fourth character is Marina’s socially awkward cousin, Frederick Tubb, who is known as Bootie.  He is ‘fresh from the provinces and keen to make his mark’ on the world.  His arrival causes the three other protagonists to ‘confront their desires and leaves them dangerously exposed.’  Also examined in part are the parents of Danielle, Marina, and Bootie.

Danielle is working as a television producer, Julius makes his living by taking temporary secretarial job, and moneyed Marina has been procrastinating by halfheartedly working on a book for several years.  In his introduction to the volume, Neel Mukherjee describes Marina as the ‘aimless daughter of the Thwaites, casting about for something to do and using her ongoing project of writing a book about Americans dress their children… as a kind of displacement activity’.  He calls Julius a ‘gay, sharp, bitchy, and… self-invented man’.  Danielle is perhaps, in this way, the only one of the three friends who is making a success of her life, but her story is fraught with problems too.  Bootie has been used as ‘one of the oldest tropes in storytelling’, as ‘a stranger who turns everyone’s life upside down’.

Messud’s character descriptions are wonderful.  When introducing Bootie’s mother, for instance, she writes: ‘she felt she walked into the light: the two large windows cast a shadowless opalescence onto the sprigged wallpaper, the family photos on top of the bureau.  Even her discarded stockings, still carrying from yesterday the shape of her solid limbs, appeared outlined in light, luminous.  Her hands and her hair, a grayed cloud, had carried up from the kitchen the smell of coffee, and the vents at her ankles pushed a warm wind around the floor.  In spite of Bootie, in spite, in spite, in this moment at least, she felt happy: she was not too old to love even the snow.’

Messud is so involved with her characters and their quirks of personality throughout, that one comes to know them intimately.  Throughout the novel, she places very in depth portrayals and explorations of self.  Of Marina, she writes: ‘She sometimes felt as though she were a changeling, as hough someone completely new had taken on the identity of Marina Thwaite  – or rather, as if someone who was seen from the outside to be completely new had done so, while beneath the surface she remained unchanged.’  When discussing Julius, Messud notes: ‘He was aware that at thirty he stretched the limits of the charming wastrel, that some actual sustained endeavor might be in order were he not to fade, wisplike, away: from charming wastrel to needy, boring failure was but a few, too few, short steps.’  Her characters are not entirely likeable, and some are almost odious in their privilege and behaviour. In consequence, I found all of Messud’s protagonists, and indeed the secondary figures who orbit around them, wholly believable.

A masterful quality in the novel is the way in which Messud focuses upon the nuances and tiny shifts in relationships, which still have the power to alter them irrevocably.  The Emperor’s Children is not overly plot heavy; whilst things happen, particularly toward the final third of the novel, Messud is more interested in the reactions which her characters have to sudden, or brooding, changes in their situations.

There is, as anyone familiar with Messud’s writing might expect, an awful lot about morality and politics woven into The Emperor’s Children.  Of this, Mukherjee writes: ‘Messud’s novel is political in the most inclusive, most intelligent understanding of that notion – it looks at the private sphere, at how individuals live in the world, how they conduct their lives, what their moral codes are, to give an indication of the bigger, wider world and the matrix of history in which these private lives are necessarily situated, the private and the public at once shaping and being shaped by each other.’  He goes on to say: ‘The questions it poses are enormous and profound.  What is a person’s true, authentic self?  Does a life need to be lived in continuous connection with that?  What if the truest idea we have of our true selves is a false one, or one held in bad faith?  Are our notions of authenticity confected, too?’  Whilst Mukherjee’s introduction is insightful, and certainly complements the novel, I would recommend that one reads it after finishing the novel, as it is rather revealing, and contains a lot of detailed commentary upon Messud’s characters and plot points.

Before beginning The Emperor’s Children, I was surprised to see so many negative reviews of it smattered on its Goodreads page.  I am so pleased that I ignored these and read it regardless, as I ended up absolutely loving it, and found something to admire on every page.  Messud’s writing provides a breath of fresh air, and gives one the ability to see characters and events, such as 9/11, from different angles.  She is a unique author in many ways, but her prose style at times reminded me of Donna Tartt and Zoe Heller, merely due to the weight which it holds within its words.  I can see why some might think that Messud’s prose is overwritten, but I found it both rich and sumptuous, as well as entirely absorbing.  There is so much which can be unpicked within its pages, and I am sure that I will be thinking about it for months to come.

The Emperor’s Children is a phenomenal, searching novel, filled with profound meditations on life.  Everything within it has been wonderfully handled, and it provokes thought at every turn.  She also writes with poignant and moving language of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, which profoundly affect every character.  As with her other books, I was absolutely blown away with this novel.  Messud is an interesting, original writer, and I very much look forward to exploring the rest of her oeuvre in the near future.

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One From the Archive: ‘Nancy and Plum’ by Betty MacDonald ****

Betty MacDonald’s Nancy and Plum has been republished as part of the Vintage Children’s Classics series, which features such titles as Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  The novel includes an afterword by former children’s laureate Jacqueline Wilson, who says that it is her favourite work for younger readers, and charming new illustrations by Catharina Baltas. 9780099583356

Nancy and Plum, which was first published in 1952, begins on Christmas Eve.  MacDonald sets the scene immediately: ‘Big snowflakes fluttered slowly through the air like white feathers and made all of Heavenly Valley smoth and white and quiet and beautiful.  Tall fir trees stood up to their knees in the snow and their outstretched hands were heaped with it.’ The book’s young protagonists are ‘locked up in rotten Mrs Monday’s house, while all the other children have gone home’

Mrs Monday owns the ‘big brick Boarding Home for Children’, in which sisters Nancy and Pamela Remson – the latter who goes by the nickname of Plum – have been placed.  The girls’ parents were killed in a train crash when they were only small, and their guardian, bachelor Uncle John, had no idea what to do with children.  MacDonald exemplifies the differences between the sisters immediately; Nancy is filled with a ‘dreamy gentleness’, and Plum is daring, with a ‘quick humor’.  Her young protagonists have been built so well that they seem to come to life, and one is soon immersed within their tale.  Each child who meets Nancy and Plum is sure to fall in love with them.

The extra material in Vintage’s reprint is thoughtful, and makes a lovely addition to the story.  It includes a biography of American author Betty MacDonald, a quiz, a recipe for Nancy’s dream meal, a glossary of words which may be unfamiliar to younger readers, and a recommended reading list with which to follow the book.  Nancy and Plum is a heartwarming and entertaining novel, which is sure to delight children and parents alike.  It is the perfect choice for a cosy festive read.

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One From the Archive: ‘Christmas Pudding’ by Nancy Mitford ****

Time for something seasonal!

In Christmas Pudding, Christmas itself is only a passing event. It is used mainly as an excuse in which to draw all of the characters together. In this way, it can be read at any time of year, and does not merely have to be saved for over Christmas time. The book is set in a rented house in Gloucestershire, which has been commandeered over the Christmas period by ‘sixteen characters in search of an author’. We meet Walter and Sally Monteath who live rather beyond their means, novelist Paul Fotheringay and his fiancee Marcella Bracket – ‘a social climber of the worst kind’ – Bobby Bobbin and his sister Philadelphia… The list goes on.

9781907429590The novel is incredibly amusing from the outset. There are such gems as ‘Philadelphia Bobbin… hoped that death would prove less dull and boring than life’, and Lady Fortescue losing her husband ‘respectably, through his death’. When Sally Monteath is asked about the impending christening of her baby daughter, she says ‘well, if the poor little sweet is still with us then we thought next Tuesday week (suit you?)… I should like the baby a good deal better if she wasn’t the spit image of Walter’s Aunt Lucy’.

The characters are the definite strength of this novel, and what a strength they are. Mitford has a wonderful way of crafting those who people her stories, and the ones she has selected to feature in Christmas Pudding crash together in the most hilarious of ways.

The novel is, overall, entertaining, amusing and relatively light, and certainly one of Mitford’s best. The book itself is a delight. Capuchin Classics refer to it as the ‘jewel in the Mitford crown’, and I wholeheartedly agree with them. Whilst it is perhaps the least well known of Mitford’s novels, it is by far one of the best.

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The Book Trail: Christmas Edition

First published in 2018.

Here is a lovely festive edition of The Book Trail.  Whilst this is not a traditional edition of the series, in that I have not used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list, it showcases eight fantastic Christmas books which I would highly recommend.  Have you read any of these?  Which is your favourite Christmas book?

295026051. Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson
‘For years Jeanette Winterson has loved writing a new story at Christmas time and here she brings together twelve of her brilliantly imaginative, funny and bold tales. For the Twelve Days of Christmas—a time of celebration, sharing, and giving—she offers these twelve plus one: a personal story of her own Christmas memories. These tales give the reader a portal into the spirit of the season, where time slows down and magic starts to happen. From trees with mysterious powers to a tinsel baby that talks, philosophical fairies to flying dogs, a haunted house and a disappearing train, Winterson’s innovative stories encompass the childlike and spooky wonder of Christmas. Perfect for reading by the fire with loved ones, or while traveling home for the holidays. Enjoy the season of peace and goodwill, mystery, and a little bit of magic courtesy of one of our most fearless and accomplished writers.’

 

2. The Orange Girl by Jostein Gaarder
‘To Georg Røed, his father is no more than a shadow, a distant memory. But then one day his grandmother discovers some pages stuffed into the lining of an old red pushchair. The pages are a letter to Georg, written just before his father died, and a story, ‘The Orange Girl’.  But ‘The Orange Girl’ is no ordinary story – it is a riddle from the past and centres around an incident in his father’s youth. One day he boarded a tram and was captivated by a beautiful girl standing in the aisle, clutching a huge paper bag of luscious-looking oranges. Suddenly the tram gave a jolt and he stumbled forward, sending the oranges flying in all directions. The girl simply hopped off the tram leaving Georg’s father with arms full of oranges. Now, from beyond the grave, he is asking his son to help him finally solve the puzzle of her identity.’

 

3. Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien 7331
‘Every December an envelope bearing a stamp from the North Pole would arrive for J.R.R. Tolkien’s children. Inside would be a letter in a strange, spidery handwriting and a beautiful colored drawing or some sketches.  The letters were from Father Christmas.  They told wonderful tales of life at the North Pole: how the reindeer got loose and scattered presents everywhere; how the accident-prone North Polar Bear climbed the North Pole and fell through the roof of Father Christmas’s house; how he broke the Moon into four pieces and made the Man in it fall into the back garden; how there were wars with the troublesome horde of goblins who lived in the caves beneath the house.  Sometimes the Polar Bear would scrawl a note, and sometimes Ilbereth the Elf would write in his elegant flowing script, adding yet more life and humor to the stories.

 

4. A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas
‘Originally emerging from a piece written for radio, the poem was recorded by Thomas in 1952. The story is an anecdotal retelling of a Christmas from the view of a young child and is a romanticised version of Christmases past, portraying a nostalgic and simpler time. It is one of Thomas’ most popular works.’

 

99195. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
‘First published in 1956, this much sought-after autobiographical recollection of Truman Capote’s rural Alabama boyhood has become a modern-day classic. We are proud to be reprinting this warm and delicately illustrated edition of A Christmas Memory–“a tiny gem of a holiday story” (School Library Journal, starred review). Seven-year-old Buddy inaugurates the Christmas season by crying out to his cousin, Miss Sook Falk: “It’s fruitcake weather!” Thus begins an unforgettable portrait of an odd but enduring friendship between two innocent souls–one young and one old–and the memories they share of beloved holiday rituals.’

 

6. The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen
‘One of Andersen’s best-beloved tales, The Snow Queen is a story about the strength and endurance of childhood friendship. Gerda’s search for her playmate Kay–who was abducted by the Snow Queen and taken to her frozen palace–is brought to life in delicate and evocative illustrations.’

 

7. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame 5659
‘Meet little Mole, willful Ratty, Badger the perennial bachelor, and petulant Toad. Over one hundred years since their first appearance in 1908, they’ve become emblematic archetypes of eccentricity, folly, and friendship. And their misadventures-in gypsy caravans, stolen sports cars, and their Wild Wood-continue to capture readers’ imaginations and warm their hearts long after they grow up. Begun as a series of letters from Kenneth Grahame to his son, The Wind in the Willows is a timeless tale of animal cunning and human camaraderie. This Penguin Classics edition features an appendix of the letters in which Grahame first related the exploits of Toad.’

 

8. Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson
‘Moomins always sleep through the winter – or they did until the year Moomintroll woke up and went exploring in the silent, snow-covered valley where the river used to scuttle along and all his friends were so busy in summer.’

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