Reading the World: Poland

I have never visited Poland, but I am absolutely fascinated by the country’s history, particularly with regard to its position during the Second World War.  Here are five books which I would highly recommend if you are interested in reading both fiction and non-fiction set within the country.

NB. I am fully aware that this list is incredibly war-oriented; if you have any recommendations for other Polish fiction, or books set within Poland, please do let me know.

  1. Clara’s War by Clara Kramer (Ebury Publishing, 2009) 9780091924416
    ‘On 21 July, 1942, the Nazis took control of the small Polish town of Zolkiew, life for Jewish 15-year-old Clara Kramer was never to be the same again. While those around her were either slaughtered or transported, Clara and her family hid perilously in a hand-dug bunker. Living in the house above and protecting them were the Becks. Mr. Beck was a womaniser, a drunkard and a self-professed anti-Semite, yet he risked his life throughout the war to keep his charges safe.Nevertheless, life with Mr. Beck was far from predictable. From the house catching fire, to Beck’s affair with Clara’s cousin, to the nightly SS drinking sessions in the room just above, Clara’s War transports you into the dark, cramped bunker, and sits you next to the families as they hold their breath time and again. Sixty years later, Clara Kramer has created a memoir that is lyrical, dramatic and heartbreakingly compelling. Despite the worst of circumstances, this is a story full of hope and survival, courage and love.’
  2. Maus I & Maus II by Art Spiegelman (Penguin, 2003)
    ‘”Maus” is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. “Maus” studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.’
  3. 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson 9780141399676
    (Penguin, 2o12)
    ‘”22 Britannia Road” by Amanda Hodgkinson is a heartbreaking and powerful novel about wartime secrets and the difficulties of adjusting to postwar life. It is 1946 and Silvana and eight-year-old Aurek board a ship that will take them from Poland to England. Silvana has not seen her husband Janusz in six years, but, they are assured, he has made them a home in Ipswich. However, after living wild in the forests for years, carrying a terrible secret, all Silvana knows is that she and Aurek are survivors. Everything else is lost. While Janusz, a Polish soldier who has criss-crossed Europe during the war, hopes his family will help put his own dark past behind him. But the war and the years apart will always haunt each of them unless they together confront what they were compelled to do to survive. ‘
  4. The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier (Jonathan Cape, 1956)
    ‘Although the silver sword was only a paper knife, it became the symbol of hope and courage which kept the Balicki children and their orphan friend Jan alive through the four years of occupation when they had to fend for themselves. And afterwards it inspired them to keep going on the exhausting and dangerous journey from war-torn Poland to Switzerland, where they hoped to find their parents. Based on true accounts, this is a moving story of life during and after the Second World War.’
  5. The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman (1946)
    ‘The powerful and bestselling memoir of a young Jewish pianist who survived the war in Warsaw against all odds. Made into a Bafta and Oscar-winning film.’

Purchase from The Book Depository


Flash Reviews: Non-Fiction (22nd September 2014)

The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman ****
1. The book is far more harrowing than the film.  Some of the scenes which Szpilman relates are grotesque, and really bring to life the horrors which surrounded him on a daily basis.
2. Szpilman’s lucid writing style lulls his readers in, and the way in which he has presented his story makes the horrid episodes which it relates all the more harrowing.
3. As far as World War Two memoirs go, The Pianist is amongst the most interesting which I have read to date.  Szpilman brilliantly exemplifies life in the Warsaw Ghetto, and his own survival within it.

Purchase from The Book Depository


Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words by Boel Westin ****
1. As everyone, I am sure, knows, I love Tove Jansson, and was so excited when I learnt that Boel Westin’s biography of her was to be translated into English.  It is a hefty tome, but so much work has clearly been put into it.
2. The relatively non-chronological structure was a little confusing at times, but the thematic links between episodes in Tove’s life did work well.  Sadly, the whole had not been checked as well it should have been, and many little mistakes could be found throughout the book.  The translation was also not as flawless as I had expected it would be, particularly as Sort Of Books are usually so good at rendering foreign texts into careful English.
3. The social and historical details of Tove’s life did ground her story well, and the descriptions of the places in which she made her home were well wrought.  The photographs and illustrations throughout were a lovely touch, but they did not always relate to the text around them and sometimes seemed to have been placed at random.

Purchase from The Book Depository


My Mother’s House by Colette ****
1.  Colette is one of my favourite authors, and I was very much looking forward to reading some of her autobiographical work.  My interest in her life was piqued when I read the wonderful Colette’s France: Her Life, Her Loves by Jane Gilmour last year.  My Mother’s House draws upon her childhood and the influence which her mother, Sido, had upon her.
2. Colette’s writing throughout is beautiful.  She is candid and honest about her past, and it feels as though she wants nothing more than to share her life with her readers.
3. Each chapter is a small essay of sorts; none is connected, but the structure works very well indeed.

Purchase from The Book Depository