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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 This incredibly affecting account of Nazi brutality towards the Jews includes a previously unpublished post-war letter from the author’s uncle to a friend who had escaped to Scotland.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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The Book Trail: The Historical Edition

I begin this edition of The Book Trail with a novel set during the First World War that I read recently and absolutely loved; my review of it went up yesterday, if you wish to read my thoughts.  I have, as usual, used the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature to come up with this list.

1. We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood 9781906784997
‘Elin lives a comfortable but lonely life at Hiram Hall. Hugo loves his young wife but is damaged by his experiences in the Boer War. August 1914 sees Hugo off to the front. Elin must support Hiram and its people, drawing on all her determination to do the right thing. Alongside her cousin Alice and friend Mouse, Elin learns to manage the estate in Cornwall, growing much needed food, sharing her mother’s recipes and making new friends and enemies. But Mouse cannot resist the lure of danger and it isn’t long before Elin herself is drawn into the horrors in France. Not everyone escapes unharmed – and when the Great War finally ends, Elin faces an even more difficult battle at home…’

 

2. The Summer of the Barshinskeys by Diane Pearson
Although the story of the Barshinskeys, which became our story, too, stretched over many summers and winters, that golden time of 1902 was when our strange, involved relationship began, when our youthful longing for the exotic, for the fulfillment of dreams not even dreamed, took a solid and restless hold upon us.” So recounts Sophie Wolloughby as she remembers that magical English summer afternoon in the season of King Edward VII’s coronation and at the end of the Boer War; that dreamlike lull in time when the hedgerows were smothered in elderflowers and the meadow air was sweet with haymaking. With her brother, Edwin, her sister, Lillian, Sophie listened to the seductive strains of the wild Russian violin tune Mr. Barshinskey played and watched spellbound as the ragtag Barshinskey family-Ivan, sullen and dirty; Mrs. Barshinskey, pale and withdrawn; and Galina, sensual, wanton, beautiful-made their way across Tyler’s meadow and into the Willoughby’s world. The delighted Willoughby children could not know that this day and the Barshinskeys’ arrival would change their lives forever-much as a breathless Europe could not anticipate that in a few short years, winds of revolution and war would whip across continents, sweeping away the old familiar way of life. It is at this enchanted moment that The Summer of the Barshinskeys begins. A beautifully told, compelling story that moves from the small village of Kent to teeming London, from war-torn and revolution rocked Moscow to St. Petersburg, this is the unforgettable saga of two families whose destinies are fated to entwine in endless combinations.

 

178503953. Daffodils by Alex Martin
Daffodils follows the varying fortunes of three people through the turbulent time of the First World War, as Edwardian England’s rigid class structures crumble under its weight. Katy is frustrated as a domestic servant and longs to escape. Jem loves Katy but cannot have her. Lionel, fresh from working in India, is ambitious, arrogant and full of radical ideas. War affects them all in very different ways and each pays a high price for the changes they are forced to make.

 

4. Pattern of Shadows by Judith Barrow
Mary is a nursing sister at a Lancashire prison camp for the housing and treatment of German POWs. Life at work is difficult but fulfilling; life at home a constant round of arguments—often prompted by her fly-by-night sister, Ellen, the apple of her short-tempered father’s eye. Then Frank turns up at the house one night—a guard at the camp, he’s been watching Mary for weeks—and won’t leave until she agrees to walk out with him. Frank Shuttleworth is a difficult man to love and it’s not long before Mary gives him his marching orders. But Shuttleworth won’t take no for an answer and the gossips are eager for their next victim, and for the slightest hint of fraternization with the enemy. Suddently, not only Mary’s happiness but her very life is threatened by the most dangerous of wartime secrets.

 

5. The Summer House by Mary Nichols 6934159
England 1918. Lady Helen believes her parents when they say she will never find a better husband than Richard, but when he returns to the Front, she begins to wonder just who it is she has married. His letters home are cold and distant and Helen realizes that she has made a terrible mistake. Then Oliver Donovan enters her life and they begin an affair that leaves Helen pregnant and alone she is forced to surrender her precious baby. Over twenty years pass and a second war is ravaging Europe, but that is not the only echo of the past to haunt the present. Laura Drummond is caught in a tragic love affair of her own and when she is forced to leave London during the Blitz, she turns to the mother she never knew.

 

6. Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front by Joyce Dennys
Spirited Henrietta wishes she was the kind of doctor’s wife who knew exactly how to deal with the daily upheavals of war. But then, everyone in her close-knit Devonshire village seems to find different ways to cope: there’s the indomitable Lady B, who writes to Hitler every night to tell him precisely what she thinks of him; the terrifyingly efficient Mrs Savernack, who relishes the opportunity to sit on umpteen committees and boss everyone around; flighty, flirtatious Faith who is utterly preoccupied with the latest hats and flashing her shapely legs; and then there’s Charles, Henrietta’s hard-working husband who manages to sleep through a bomb landing in their neighbour’s garden.
With life turned upside down under the shadow of war, Henrietta chronicles the dramas, squabbles and loyal friendships that unfold in her affectionate letters to her ‘dear childhood friend’ Robert. Warm, witty and perfectly observed, “Henrietta’s War” brings to life a sparkling community of determined troupers who pull together to fight the good fight with patriotic fervour and good humour.’

 

2715227. We Were at War: The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times by Simon Garfield
Of all the accounts written about the Second World War, none are more compelling than the personal diaries of those who lived through it. We Are At War is the story of five everyday folk, who, living on the brink of chaos, recorded privately on paper their most intimate hopes and fears.  Pam Ashford, a woman who keeps her head when all around are losing theirs, writes with comic genius about life in her Glasgow shipping office. Christopher Tomlin, a writing-paper salesman for whom business is booming, longs to be called up like his brother. Eileen Potter organises evacuations for flea-ridden children, while mother-of-three Tilly Rice is frustrated to be sent to Cornwall. And Maggie Joy Blunt tries day-by-day to keep a semblance of her ordinary life.  Entering their world as they lived it, each diary entry is poignantly engrossing. Amid the tumultuous start to the war, these ordinary British people are by turns apprehensive and despairing, spirited and cheerful – and always fascinatingly, vividly real.

 

8. How the Girl Guides Won the War by Janie Hampton
Mention Girl Guides to any woman and the reaction will be strong. They are all too often regarded merely in terms of biscuit sales and sing-songs, hardly anybody is aware of the massive impact that they had on gender equality and the outcome of World War II. This book explores how the Guides’ work was crucial to Britain’s victory.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which have you added to your TBR list?

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‘A Share of the World’ by Hugo Charteris ****

A largely forgotten novel now, Hugo Charteris’ A Share of the World was selected by Evelyn Waugh in the Sunday Times as ‘the best first novel of 1953’.  The blurb immediately intrigued me, as a fan of both historical fiction and books which have been lost to the annals of time.  It describes A Share of the World as a ‘harrowing story of a man lost in his times, bewildered and anguished by both war and love’, and as ‘a masterful portrayal of the human psyche at odds with itself’.  The Times Literary Supplement wrote of the novel: ‘Mr Charteris brings off many arresting descriptions of things seen and felt’, and the Evening Standard said: ‘Hugo Charteris has the temperament of the born writer…  He sees vividly, feels acutely, has a nervous dislike of the commonplace’.

9780992523428A Share of the World has been introduced by the author’s daughter, Jane Charteris.  She believes that John Grant is ‘a devastatingly critical, uncompromising self-portrait, even from a first-time novelist’.  The novel’s protagonist, John Grant, is very briefly an Officer in active service during the war.  He has to step down ‘after a disastrous sortie in the Italian campaign’, in which one of his men is ‘let down terribly’.  His war is a short one, and he is soon sent home, where he seeks ‘solace, absolution, a future, and most importantly, love’.

When Grant returns to England, he takes up a place at University, cloistering himself away into the hushed world of lectures and Dons.  After some time, he meets Jane Matlock, a figure whom he was familiar with, in part, in childhood, due to attending Eton with her brother.  Of Jane, Charteris writes: ‘By her brother’s label she didn’t “really exist.”  She “loved” Christmas, sunsets, flowers with an exclamation of adoration, kittens, parents and her laughter he thought was nerves not mirth’.  He swiftly falls head over heels for her.

The novel is immediately both vivid and chilling in its descriptions and character portraits: ‘This valley where every hour a drained face got separated from its boots by a supine lump of blanket, was a corner of a foreign field which was not forever England, but forever – and as ever – John Grant…  John Grant was a connoisseur of fear’.  Charteris’ real strength throughout A Share of the World is the way in which he introduces levels of bleakness to the world which at first seems familiar to the general reader.  The starkness which he generates has been rendered masterfully; for instance, in such passages as ‘from here the landscape looked wrecked and soiled more by gale and rain than war.  The effect was of untidiness – as though a grimy infantile hand had splurged across it’.  Charteris also recognises the worries and anxieties of his characters, particularly his protagonist.  Grant is constantly preoccupied with his own physical body; he thinks about when the next shipment of magnesium tablets will arrive in order to help his stomach, for instance.

Charteris’ comparisons are often quite unusual, and he beautifully demonstrates the overwhelming reality of war: ‘Men in grey, krauts, Jerries, Huns, Germans, the Bosch, Fritz – what are they?  John had met one, a woman on holiday, in Wales – an Anglophile from Dresden.  He tried to imagine her, out there somewhere, with a Schmeiser dressed in grey’.  The portrait of Grant which Charteris builds so wonderfully has such a realism to it that one can imagine his hopes and dreams, as well as his fears, are reflective of a lot of those who were involved in similar conflicts.

A Share of the World is a beautiful novel, which heavily demonstrates the effects, and aftereffects, of war.  It deserves to be treasured by a slew of new readers.

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Two Reviews: ‘A World Gone Mad’, and ‘What Was Lost’

A World Gone Mad by Astrid Lindgren ****
9781782272311Astrid Lindgren’s wartime diaries, which only became available to the public in 2013, have been translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death.  It is fascinating to view the Second World War from the perspective of a housewife – and later an incredibly writer, publishing her beloved Pippi Longstocking close to the war’s end – in a neutral country; thus far, I have largely read accounts like this one from either Western of Eastern Europe, and a Northern perspective was rather refreshing.

It goes without saying that Lindgren writes incredibly well, and the translation has been handled both competently and admiringly.  Many of the entires are rather short, and not every day is covered, but the whole is perhaps all the more compelling for it.  Lindgren discusses what has happened in the wider world at any given time, as well as closer to home; how rationing does not affect the Swedes, for instance, but all she has read from elsewhere is focused upon the shortages of even basic foodstuffs.  A great amount of emphasis is placed upon Scandinavia, and the effects upon it.  Lindgren’s diaries are a real joy to read.

 

What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn **** 9781906994259
O’Flynn has been on my radar for quite some time.  I was undecided about which book of hers I would begin with, and chose this only because my boyfriend had a copy of it (although he doesn’t know where it came from, it must be said).  From the very beginning, I did like Kate’s character; she intrigued me.  I definitely preferred the sections which included her to those with Lisa and Kate, et al.; whilst in retrospect I can see that they were pivotal to the plot, they failed to come to life for me in quite the same way.  What Was Lost is well written and well pieced together; I’m surprised it’s a novel which hasn’t been more hyped up, if I’m honest.

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