Category Archives: Books

The Quest to read WCiT – part the third and summary

Now that I have two Quests (one to read WCiT and another to clear the backlog of unread books on The Shelf) the whole exercise could last a lifetime.  However, not one to give up easily, I shall slog on and blog on it in the absence of other subjects… or indeed in addition to other subjects… until such time as I run out of steam altogether (whether this is meant literally or metaphorically is yet to be seen).

Once having finished Crime and Punishment, my reading speed seemed to go into overdrive. I blasted my way through over 1000 pages of novels in just 7 days.  There must be some study on motivation hiding in there somewhere if anyone’s interested in doing some research.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada – translated from German by Michael Hofmann.  Not on The Shelf of Unread Books but felt I needed to read it in preparation for a forthcoming lecture at the German Society. I read it in English because I thought that at over 500 pages I wouldn’t get through it in time available. It took Hans Fallada 24 days to write – and took me less than 24 hours to read. A gripping story of the inhabitants of a small block of flats in Berlin in the Nazi era. The stories of a judge, a Jewish lady, a Nazi family, a middle-aged working couple all intertwine but mainly the story is about an ordinary, non-descript working couple, whose grief at losing their son in the war spurs them on to resist the Nazi machine in their own little way. They start writing anti-Nazi slogans on postcards that they distribute around the city. This small act of high treason has great implications, not only for them eventually, but also for the team investigating the case. The story is based on actual events – and is tough reading in places for the sensitive.

I should be interested to read the original German because I really loved the translation. There were times when I doubted that the German had been translated closely because I found the language used in places to be a bit modern for the 1940s but if it captures the essence that is the main thing. While I’m muttering about translation (and as that is the main raison d’être of this blog, why shouldn’t I?) I shall mention the title. In German it is “Jeder stirbt für sich allein” – which is not easy to translate concisely. It literally means ‘you die only for yourself’.. . here, in the sense of ‘your own causes’, I think. I’m not so sure that ‘Alone in Berlin’ is a really suitable title… particularly as we discover that no man is an island and even the most private actions seem to manage to implicate others. But don’t let my cogitations about the title put you off. I recommend the novel. And Penguin classifies it as a Modern Classic. So a brownie point for me. 😉

Cranford – Elizabeth Gaskell

has been sitting on The Shelf for so long that I had forgotten it was there. I almost bought a second copy recently (without realising I already had it) and only stopped myself because it would inevitably be added the The Shelf.

In my idealistic youth, I had a rule that I was not allowed to see a televised adaptation of a novel before I had read it. This rule has been broken many times now and many of my gentle readers will also have seen the fairly recent adaptation of Cranford with Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton et al. It was delightful and so is the original book. There are some very witty laugh-out-loud moments (I am not usually given to such emotions when reading) and the whole depiction of this small town is utterly charming. With its themes of failing banks, the need for employment and ladies of restricted means practising ‘elegant economy’, it feels quite contemporary.

My second-hand copy has a little story of its own. A hardback, published by Harrap in 1940 and reprinted in 1948, the publisher’s note says “The first impression of this edition of Cranford was published in 1940, and most of it was destroyed by enemy action.”

One particular chapter is full of typos and a previous owner/reader has marked them all in pencil (she – I assume it was a she – missed a couple 😉 Perhaps she wearied of her task or didn’t have her pencil to hand…as I didn’t). At the end, there is a final flourishing “Finis” after which Ms Pencil Proofreader has written 31 March 1967. I joined in and wrote 1 November 2010. The book has been sitting on my Shelf for a while, but not decades … but it made me wonder if this copy had not been read for 43 years…

A Winter Book – Tove Jansson.  Sometime ago I read The Summer Book by the same author. I think I enjoyed the latter more than this collection of stories (which were loosely connected to winter). The one that fascinated me most was about a squirrel which apparently ‘sailed’ to Jansson’s island on a plank of wood. It reminded me of Beatrix Potter’s story of Squirrel Nutkin who, I seem to recall, sailed around one of the Lakes. I’d always thought this was a ‘humanising’ of animals… but it would appear that squirrels can/do undertake this activity. Amazing.

The book I noticed had been translated from the Swedish by three different people. I thought it was unusual that there would be a team of translators working on a novel but when I looked more closely the mystery was revealed. These short stories had been translated individually and then brought together to form this anthology.

So a Modern Classic removed from The Shelf. Do I get two points for that?

How I lived on year on just a pound a day – Kath Kelly

This was given to me by a fellow freelancer. Easy to read (it took just one journey from Oxford to the ARC – with hanging around for the rail replacement coach) and interesting. Kelly achieved her goal and lived within her very frugal means – but before you dash off to save yourself thousands… she didn’t include her rent in this figure… nor did she mention anything that I recall about paying her Council Tax or utility bills. But worth a gander for money-saving tips if you’re feeling the squeeze financially.  You might want to see if you can find a second-hand copy. It costs £6.99 new…so a week’s budget in Kelly’s terms…

(Neither a WCiT or from The Shelf!)

Agnes Grey – by Anne Bronte.

This copy is one of a set of Victorian novels inherited from my grandmother so it must have been sitting on The Shelf for some 15 years or so. I’m glad to be able to tick it off my list but it does not really compare with the drama or passion that Anne’s sisters, Emily and Charlotte, convey in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. It’s a simple story of an impoverished vicar’s daughter who becomes a governess to support herself. Her charges are insufferable snobs and treat her without respect but eventually she meets a kind man and the rest is pretty predictable.

The spy who came in from the Cold – John le Carré

Neither WCiT nor from The Shelf; another loan. The story of a British spy whose final job is to betray his country in Communist East Germany but his double-crossing (or was it triple? I started to lose track who was working for whom) results in treachery that he failed to foresee. I kind of guessed a particular character was going to get more involved than originally bargained for but like Leamas (the protagonist), I didn’t see the end coming until it was inevitable – and of course, far too late (for him to do anything about it). Bleak, sparse and for me, hard work to keep up!

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell. I made the ‘mistake’ of mentioning to a friend, S, how much I had enjoyed Cranford and North and South (and Wives and Daughters which I read a long time ago). S’s house could rival most libraries and she pressed Mary Barton upon me. (I didn’t tell her about The Quest or The Shelf and accepted her loan). MB is Gaskell’s first novel but not as accomplished in my humble opinion as say, W& D or N&S.  She spends a long time (a couple of hundred pages?) setting the scene of poverty and factory work in Manchester in the mid-1840s. Grim, grim, grim and the plot takes a long time to kick in. Once it does, there is a certain amount of tension and momentum but the dénouement left much to be desired, unless of course, I completely missed the motive of one of the main characters … but the reasons for his actions seemed a bit thin to me… and the ending got a little bit schmaltzy with rapid forgiveness for great wrongs bestowed in unlikely circumstances… but perhaps I’m too hard hearted. In all, good to read if you’re doing a survey of Gaskell’s works (as I appear to be) but I won’t be aching to borrow it from S again, if the truth be told.

I doubt I shall finish anymore books before the New Year. So the summary of the year’s reading is thus:

World Classics in Translation: 4

Modern Classics in Translation: 5

From The Shelf: 8

Other: 10 (I’m easily distracted!)

Total: 27… so an average of 2 books per month… around 100 pages a week (I’m trying to make myself feel better…because 4 WCiT is somewhat low. Must try harder). I think I’d like to read more poetry next year as my knowledge of such is woeful… but I still want to make a bit more of a dent in the WCiT as well. Recommendations always welcomed!

The Quest – judged by the BBC*

A few weeks ago, Bimble drew my attention to the BBC list of 200 books one should read. As if I haven’t got enough to do with all those tomes still lurking on The Shelf. But I thought I would try to make myself feel better by ticking off the ones I have read that the BBC* thinks I should have under my literary belt. Red denotes an achievement. Blue denotes on The Shelf. Orange denotes started but not finished and probably back  on The Shelf.

  1. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  3. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
  4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  7. Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
  8. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  11. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  12. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  13. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (highly recommended)
  14. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  15. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  16. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  17. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  18. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  19. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières
  20. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  21. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  22. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
  23. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling
  24. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling
  25. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  26. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  27. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  28. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  29. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  30. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  31. The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson
  32. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  33. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  34. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  35. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
  36. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  37. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
  38. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  39. Dune by Frank Herbert
  40. Emma by Jane Austen
  41. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  42. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  43. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  44. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  45. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  46. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  47. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  48. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
  49. Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian (highly recommended)
  50. The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher (What is THIS doing here? It’s rubbish. I read it because everyone was raving about it. A waste of time)
  51. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  52. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  53. The Stand by Stephen King
  54. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  55. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
  56. The BFG by Roald Dahl
  57. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
  58. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
  59. Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
  60. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Weeps…)
  61. Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman
  62. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
  63. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  64. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
  65. Mort by Terry Pratchett
  66. The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton (not recently!!)
  67. The Magus by John Fowles
  68. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
  69. Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
  70. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  71. Perfume by Patrick Süskind
  72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
  73. Night Watch by Terry Pratchett
  74. Matilda by Roald Dahl
  75. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
  76. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  77. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  78. Ulysses by James Joyce
  79. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  80. Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson
  81. The Twits by Roald Dahl
  82. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  83. Holes by Louis Sachar
  84. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
  85. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
  86. Vicky Angel by Jacqueline Wilson
  87. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  88. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  89. Magician by Raymond E. Feist
  90. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  91. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
  92. The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel
  93. The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
  94. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  95. Katherine by Anya Seton
  96. Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer
  97. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
  98. Girls in Love by Jacqueline Wilson
  99. The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
  100. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
  101. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
  102. Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
  103. The Beach by Alex Garland
  104. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  105. Point Blanc by Anthony Horowitz
  106. The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
  107. Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz
  108. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
  109. The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
  110. The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson
  111. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  112. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend
  113. The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat
  114. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
  115. The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
  116. The Dare Game by Jacqueline Wilson
  117. Bad Girls by Jacqueline Wilson
  118. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  119. Shōgun by James Clavell
  120. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
  121. Lola Rose by Jacqueline Wilson
  122. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
  123. The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy
  124. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
  125. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (highly recommended)
  126. Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett
  127. Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison
  128. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
  129. Possession: A Romance by A. S. Byatt
  130. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  131. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Recommended)
  132. Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
  133. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  134. George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl
  135. Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett
  136. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  137. Hogfather by Terry Pratchett
  138. The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan
  139. Girls in Tears by Jacqueline Wilson
  140. Sleepovers by Jacqueline Wilson
  141. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (I think I read it in German as Im Westen nichts Neues ;-))
  142. Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
  143. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
  144. It by Stephen King
  145. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
  146. The Green Mile by Stephen King
  147. Papillon by Henri Charrière
  148. Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett
  149. Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian
  150. Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz
  151. Soul Music by Terry Pratchett
  152. Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett
  153. The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett
  154. Atonement by Ian McEwan
  155. Secrets by Jacqueline Wilson
  156. The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier
  157. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
  158. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  159. Kim by Rudyard Kipling
  160. Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon
  161. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  162. River God by Wilbur Smith
  163. Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
  164. The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx
  165. The World According to Garp by John Irving
  166. Lorna Doone by R. D. Blackmore
  167. Girls Out Late by Jacqueline Wilson
  168. The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye (Recommended)
  169. The Witches by Roald Dahl
  170. Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
  171. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  172. They Used to Play on Grass by Terry Venables and Gordon Williams
  173. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  174. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  175. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
  176. Dustbin Baby by Jacqueline Wilson
  177. Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl
  178. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  179. Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
  180. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (also in French Le Petit Prince and German Der kleine Prinz ;-))
  181. The Suitcase Kid by Jacqueline Wilson
  182. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  183. The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
  184. Silas Marner by George Eliot
  185. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
  186. Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith
  187. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
  188. Goosebumps by R. L. Stine
  189. Heidi by Johanna Spyri (and in Swiss German, natürlich)
  190. Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence
  191. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
  192. Man and Boy by Tony Parsons
  193. The Truth by Terry Pratchett
  194. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
  195. The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans
  196. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
  197. Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett
  198. The Once and Future King by T. H. White
  199. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  200. Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrews

* Actually, although published by the BBC, it seems that Joe Public selected the list and Joe seems to be heavily into Jacqueline Wilson who writes for 12-year olds and Terry Pratchett who apparently writes funny novels… so my overall percentage is pushed down somewhat. Perhaps I should abandon the WCiT quest and lighten up a bit!

The Quest to read WCiT – part the second

Well, the quest to read World Classics in Translation continues in its haphazard way. What can I report about what I have read since I last posted on this topic back in, um, April

Persuasion – Jane Austen.

Re-read. A world classic (my edition tells me) and the fifth of Miss Austen’s works I’d read in as many months (I reread Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Sense and Sensibility in December, followed by Mansfield Park in January). I think it might be my favourite by Jane. The main character is Anne Elliot, a little older and maturer at 27 than JA’s other heroines. One who has loved and lost and knows the pain this brings. The novel is a sustained study of the agony of heartbreak and restraint.

Brother Dusty-Feet – Rosemary Sutcliff

Oxford Children’s Classic. I love children’s novels and this one is by one of my very favourite children’s authors. Rosemary Sutcliff is a hero – and I only regret that I did not discover her during my own childhood. This novel is set in Elizabethan times and tells the story of a young boy who runs away from his unhappy home with his aunt and joins a group of travelling players. There are a couple of adventures before our young hero achieves his goal. I would guess that it is written for children aged about 8-10 years old. A gentle read.

The Rose Round – Meriol Trevor

Another children’s book picked up in a second-hand shop. It is a little reminiscent of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden but as adults are an integral part of the story, it has less of a magical feel about it.  Matt is an orphaned boy living with his older sister, Caro, a cook at a big house, where Madame is a bitter woman. Two of her children have died leaving with her with her least favourite, Theo, who was born with a deformed arm. He is now a young man but she continues to make his life unhappy and controls her granddaughter’s life, too. Theo has a heart of gold which Matt and Caro appreciate and, eventually, Madame, repents of her attitude towards him. This is the first children’s book that I ever remember reading that has such a strong Catholic theme guiding (most of) the characters’ actions. It was published in 1961 and is set in the 50s (I think). I’m not sure how many modern 10-year olds would identify with it but they might see it as an interesting insight into a childhood of 50 years ago.

The Peacock Summer – Rumer Godden

Has been sitting on my pile of books to read for about 2 years. Someone recommended Godden as a children’s author but this novel seems to be for adults or at least teenagers.

Two English girls are dragged out of their boarding school at short notice to return home to India where their father needs their presence to lend some respectability to a love affair he is conducting. His lover  ostensibly  becomes the girls’ governess. The plot takes about three quarters of the book to get into gear (I nearly gave up) but it does finally take off with the heat, dust and passion of India getting under the girls’ skin.

The Road Ahead – Christabel Bielenberg

This is the sequel to The Past is Myself. The first book tells the autobiographical story of a young British woman who marries a German in the early 1930s just as Hitler is voted in. She and her husband do what they can in the German Resistance and he is involved in the 20 July plot to assassinate Hitler.

Once the war is over, they basically have to learn to live together again and decide to move to Ireland with their young family. The back cover talks of how the author becomes involved with the Peace Women of Northern Ireland, but disappointingly, this subject barely covers a page in the book. Bielenberg writes beautifully but her understated style did not leave me feeling that this part of her life was in any way remarkable – despite the challenges and hardships she overcame.

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I have already vented my spleen on this novel and do wish to revisit the subject! Perhaps I missed the point – but it wasn’t for want of trying. A major achievement in actually reading it to the end. I think my copy will be despatched to the charity shop; I have little enough space on my bookshelves as it is!

Stone Tree – Gyrðir Elíasson

Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb. A series of short stories (in some cases, very short stories) with a sort of dream-like quality. I’m not sure I found them a satisfying read in many ways, but certainly different from my usual fare and good for reading in bed. Ten minutes max and you’ve finished the story! Not sure this volume is a World Classic. But it is in Translation. So it almost fits the criteria.

North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell

Essentially a Victorian love-story set in Milton (Manchester) as the Industrial Revolution is getting into full swing. Margaret, our heroine, is obliged by her father’s resignation from the Church to follow him and her mother to their new home in the North having enjoyed an idyllic childhood in countryside in the South. She encounters the grittiness of her new surroundings, not only in the smoke and dirt of the city, but in the gruffness of its inhabitants. She becomes acquainted with  mill-owners (primarily Mr Thornton) and workers and is torn in her loyalty to them when a strike breaks out. Life becomes more complicated when Mr Thornton falls in love with her but his affection is unrequited. The plot has many similarities with Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and if I feel inspired enough, I may blog about this one day.

The Quest is not exactly progressing as I had hoped. As mentioned I got a bit bogged down in C&P and even managed to lose it on two occasions…(once for about a month and again for about a week) ! As a comparison, it took me about 3 or 4 months to read its 434 pages. I whizzed through N&S‘s 530 pages in 3 days!

I had a big reorganisation session of my books at the end of September and hoiked off the shelves all those that I have not actually read. These number in excess of 100. Few of them are WCiT. My revised quest is to whittle down this number – although I don’t know if I can go cold turkey and stop buying books altogether!

I missed two off the list

Two more books I read between Jan 1st and April 1st – neither of which fit the WCiT criterion:

Peril at End House – Agatha Christie. Poirot solving mysteries in Cornwall and drawing the correct conclusion using his little grey cells. His side-kick Captain Hastings was also there – hindering the investigation as usual. I wonder what Mrs Hastings thinks about his long absences from home? They are never work related – unless amateur sleuthing is his job.  I was fascinated by the cover of this book: it does not say when the oeuvre was published but judging from the advert (advert!!) on the back cover it must have been in the 1950s. For there is a black and white photo of a bride and a lurid green slogan saying “Happy is the Bride with a Bravington Ring” (unnecessary use of capitals in my view…). Depicted are 6 wedding rings ranging in price from £3.17.06 and a mighty £10.0.0  (that’s pounds, shillings and pence, in case you were born after 1971) with the amazing statement “Orders by post sent of 7 days approval. Cash refunded if not satisfied.” I can’t imagine buying a wedding ring based on a drawing.

Ad is not unlike this one in style. Bravingtons is still trading.[I hope that linky thing has worked – it’s my first attempt ever!]

The other book I missed off the list was bought at the local LitFest after hearing the author speak on the subject:

The File – Timothy Garton Ash.  Garton Ash went to live in East Berlin in 1978 to research for his PhD. The Stasi kept a file on him – his code name was Romeo.  He decided to track down the people who had informed on him and those he was friends with – and considers the differences between history and memory; the version of his life as documented by the Stasi and the version documented in his own diary.

New Year’s Resolutions

I need to do a bit [ a lot] of catching up. I don’t think I blogged about my new year’s resolutions… and now that we’re already a quarter and a bit of the way through, it seems a bit late to start now.

But help is at hand, gentle reader, for I believe that I have blogged once before about the fact that the year can start anew whenever you wish it to do so. Admittedly, January 1st is the traditional start to the calendar year but lots of other traditions start their new year on different  dates… Chinese New Year, for example. (There are others, I just can’t dredge them out of my sluggish brain right now).

April 1st this year had a New Year-ish feel to it for me… it was the end of a long period of uninterrupted projects (great in one way..i.e. I got paid, but it meant working for what felt like months without a break.. not even a measly weekend to relax in). So, when the piles of work were finally finished, it felt like the end of term; Easter also gave it that ‘new’ feeling but I was so poleaxed I didn’t get round to blogging.

Now it is the beginning of my own personal new year… so I will tell you about one of the slightly more successful resolutions I made at the end of December. If , after reading it, you are entirely unimpressed, this will merely serve to underline the failure of the other projects I decided to undertake and have not yet tackled.

I thought it was time to tackle my reading. Although I read quite a lot of books, I realised that I have managed to neglect the World Classics.  I am ashamed to say that I have reached the age I am without ever reading any works by Russian, Italian or Spanish authors (or if I have, I cannot remember which they were). There are authors from beyond Europe I have not read. So the objective was to read World Classics in Translation [WCiT] (or in French and German if I Felt Up To It Which I Probably Wouldn’t).

So, how have I done? Pretty miserably on the “In Translation” part of the exercise, truth be told. And pretty abysmally on the World Classics bit, too. So here is a list of what I have read. I’ve stumbled over the following…rather than followed a neat list of What I Should Read. Ah well, judge not, lest ye also be judged.

Mansfield Park – Jane Austen (re-read). Not a huge amount of action over 500 pages if I’m honest.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte (re-read). Great story. You will know it. If you don’t, then read it.

The Vicar of Wakefield – Oliver Goldsmith. Pretty tedious. Style did not appeal. Plot did not engage me.

The Shiralee – Darcy Niland. Modern classic. Australian. Beautifully written story of a swagman who takes his four-year old daughter on his travels with him. He learns a lot about himself, life and little girls on the way.  Classed as modern classic, so doesn’t quite fit the original parameters, but who cares?. A gem. Loved it.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark. Did not warm to the protagonist; found her to be rather too smug and self-satisfied to be likeable.

Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut – About the bombing of Dresden. Not sure it’s quite my kind of book but at least it comes under the heading of (American) modern classic.

The Assistant – Robert Walser. Bookgroup book. Modern classic by Swiss writer in translation (so getting closer to the original aim). Gave up at page 100. My bookgroup seemed to like it on the whole, so I may resume if I feel life has nothing better to offer but it can’t be described as a page turner.

Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert. Woah – hang on to your hats. A World Classic in Translation. Found the eponymous heroine to be rather dull and self-centred. Did not feel that she was experiencing the great love of her life but perhaps that’s the point – she didn’t know when she was happy.  A bit disappointing.

My Childhood – Maxim Gorky. A World Classic in Translation. Autobiographical story of Russian author’s childhood (bet you didn’t guess that bit!) which was pretty miserable (think: David Copperfield). Poor family, no father, lots of beatings for minor misdemeanours. It is part of a trilogy. May seek the others out – but not just yet.

One thing I’ve realised rather belatedly in my quest is that the Real Classics are usually no fewer than 500 pages each. My aim to read one a month may not be achieved. The local library does not seem to stock WCiT, so I shall appeal to my gentle readers to recommend some that I can order. In the event that there is a mighty list those under 250 pages will be given priority. My grateful thanks 😉

Berlin Tales – book review

On my recent travels I took for company Berlin Tales, a collection of stories translated into English by Lyn Marven.
This volume is a great companion for those who do not know the city as much as it is for those who do. It takes us on a journey to Berlin through the ages – from the deprivation and decadence of the post WW1 years, to WW2 which followed soon afterwards. There are also stories from both sides of the divided city during the Cold War, the fall of the Wall and of the experiences of reintegration.

Represented are classic voices (Döblin, Tucholsky) and more contemporary authors (Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Carmen Francesca Banciu – the eagle-eyed will recognise those names as being Turkish and Romanian respectively).

There are tales of summertime, the S-Bahn, the DDR, and a host of other topics all of which make up Berlin over the years.

The Himmler Brothers – by Katrin Himmler

I spotted this book in my little local library recently and borrowed it. The Himmler Brothers has a subtitle “A German Family History” and I think this is probably what attracted me to the book which has been translated by Michael Mitchell. (In the copy I borrowed this fact is obliterated by a library label…) (And while I’m on the subject of translation, I would say that it is well translated. The only busman’s holiday I went on briefly was when there was an explanation about someone having changed his name at the end of the war to escape detection.  A certain Richard Wendler changed his name to Kurt Kummermehr. It made me laugh because the next sentence said “He had assumed the name because he was afraid of being handed over to Poland and sentenced to death there.” There is a wonderful irony in his choice of name because arguably Wendler could be related to the word “wenden” to turn or change and Kummermehr literally means “worrymore”. Kummermehr as a name in itself is not as unusual in German as it would be in English – but the juxtaposition of his name and the fact that he was afraid struck me as being amusing… but I digress…)

Generally speaking, I think other people’s lives are fascinating – and coupled with the ebbs and flows of politics, social fashions, developments and other outside influences, people’s lives are after all what makes history. The Himmler family certainly had a major influence on the history of Germany starting from about 1920 – and the repercussions may be felt for decades yet to come.

Katrin Himmler, the author, is the great-niece of the famous chief perpetrator of the Holocaust and head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler. (His younger brother was her grandfather). She began her research in response to her father’s request to find out more about his father, Ernst. As she began to dig through the archives, she discovered that the stories she had heard about her grandfather were not entirely true and she realised he was not quite the non-political family man she had understood him to be.

And yet, throughout the book, meticulous though it is in describing the facts relating to the Himmler family, the boys’ childhoods, their parents, their careers and friends, I never really felt to get under the skin of these people. Perhaps it is not possible in some ways but Ms Himmler seems to restrict herself to the facts and we never really understand her family members’ motivation for their actions. Of course, one explanation is the patriotic feeling for restoring the country’s standing in the world after its defeat in WW1 and the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles. There is, however, no real explanation of why the family personally felt so driven to such extremes to take the action they did. As respectable middle-class German Catholics, there is no mention of  whether their religious morals might have preyed on their minds when viewing fellow Catholics (Poles) or fellow human beings (Slavs, Jews, etc) as being so inferior. At the end, the author’s grandmother claims that her husband, Ernst, was “a victim of his brother” (Heinrich) although she was very proud of being related to one of the most powerful men in the Nazi hierarchy when the circumstances were more favourable towards her.  The narrative has moments when it starts to fly and these seem to be when the author is talking on a more personal level, in my opinion, but sometimes it is a bit of a slog trying to keep up with all the details about wives, children and mistresses, not to mention the ins and outs of the lives of friends and colleagues – the inclusion of which is sometimes questionable.

It must be one of the hardest tasks in the world to lay bare the skeletons in your family closet and, when you belong to one of the most feared and hated families in recent history, it must be almost paralysing to face the enormity of what has happened. Ms Himmler admits that she experienced feelings of immense guilt and at times found it hard to continue.  She was incredibly brave to continue with her work.  And we learn that she is not only delving into her difficult family past just for her father or for herself but for her son. Katrin Himmler’s partner is an Israeli Jew whose father survived the war in Poland; she is the great-niece of Heinrich Himmler. Their son will grow up to find out that one side of his family was hell-bent on destroying the whole of the race that the other half of his family belongs to.  I hope this book helps him understand something – but what a task. Historians have spent the past 60-odd years trying to understand what went on. Although we have the facts and can start to piece it all together in our heads, I’m not sure anyone will really ever understand with their heart. So that is one tough future facing Katrin Himmler’s son.

The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig – book review

The Post Office Girl was first written in the 1930s by Stefan Zweig, an Austrian Jewish writer as Rausch der Verwandlung (which means something like “the intoxication of change”).  The novel was not published in the German-speaking world until 1982, long after the author’s suicide in Brazil in 1942. The manuscript was found amongst his effects and there was some uncertainty as to whether it was an unfinished novel.

It was translated into English in 2008. I first heard about it in the local paper which wrote a feature as Zweig had lived in the Ancient Roman City for a year or so having left Austria when WW2 broke out.

The story tells of the life of Christine, a clerk in a post office, who has spent her 28 years of life struggling to make ends meet in the madness of the inflation-hit years in Austria after the end of WW1. Her mother is ill and requires medication they can ill afford.

Christine’s future looks hum-drum and bleak until the day she receives a letter from her aunt who has married a rich American. They are on holiday in Switzerland and invite Christine to join them. From her impoverished background, she is suddenly catapulted into a life of frivolity, fashion and fun and she throws herself into it with gusto – daring to believe that she deserves a bit of light-heartedness after the grind of the previous decade. But equally suddenly, her access to this sparkling lifestyle is denied and she has to return to her former life.

After some time, she meets a man who has also drawn a short straw in life and together they hatch a plan.

Is the novel unfinished? It’s hard to tell. Zweig would have had little idea of how real life was going to turn out when he first started writing this novel, so it is perhaps appropriate that the story finishes when it does. Whether this was planned or not, we may never know.

French women don’t get fat

“French women don’t get fat – the secret of eating for pleasure” is by Mireille Guiliano.  Written in English by a Frenchwoman who happens to be CEO of the champagne company, Clicquot, married to an American and a long-time resident of that country, Guiliano makes many comparisons between the eating habits of the two countries.

I’m not so sure I can say I have never seen a fat Frenchwoman but it is true to say that the general image, certainly of Parisiennes, is that they are all very slim. Guiliano lets you in on some of the secrets as to how this is.

The tips I can remember from her 272 pages are nothing particularly new to anyone who has ever been concerned about their weight.  Eat slowly, exercise (she swears by using the stairs rather than going to the gym) and plan your meals.  It’s not all austerity and preaching. You are, she says, allowed to indulge in a little chocolate and other traditional forbiddens – but always and only ever in moderation.

Guiliano shares some of her favourite recipes – but not an eating plan – and occasionally sounds somewhat smug as she has a dig at her American sisters (and brothers) but on the whole this is a light read (it doesn’t pig out on nutritional values and metabolic rates and generally blind you with science) and her advice may well be worth taking, for, as a woman who has a job which involves a lot of networking and entertaining over lavish meals, she has an enviably trim figure.

The Summer Book – Tove Jansson

“Sommerboken” written in Swedish by the Finnish writer, Tove Jansson and translated into English by Thomas Teal is a delightful depiction of a young girl, Sophia aged 6, and her elderly grandmother, living on a tiny island for a summer.

For months, they live an idyllic life, pottering around their small kingdom, planting seeds, watching the sea and the weather, and doing very little that actually has to be done. Each is at the stage of life where the days are endless – in a positive way – for Sophia the long, long school-less days and for her grandmother the days of rushing around are over and she can more or less please herself how she spends the time she has left.

Grandmother is a bit of a free spirit, unconstrained by convention, and often happy to indulge in childlike pursuits. Sophia is wise beyond her years, thinking of her grandmother’s constraints of age (her walking stick and dizzy spells) and together they pass the days seemingly without one eye on the clock, or worrying about what should be achieved.

There is a particularly charming account of Sophia writing a book. In fact, grandmother writes it as Sophia dictates.

“Wait a minute,” Grandmother said. “How about if I put….”

“Put anything you want,” said Sophia impatiently. “Just so they’ll understand. Now don’t interrupt. It goes on like this:…..”

By August, the days are drawing in and they make preparations to leave the island and start to put things away for the winter. Grandmother worries that people might land on the island and not know where essential things were kept. “A little later, she started worrying about the stovepipe and put up a sign: “Don’t close the damper. It might rust shut. If it doesn’t draw, there may be a bird’s nest in the chimney – later on in the spring, that is.”

This epitomises the innocence and generosity that run through the story evoking all that is perfect about summer.  It evokes that yearning in all of us that we seek to find on our summer holidays – the endless  days of lightness and nothingness.  A delight. And one which I intend to revisit another summer – if I cannot have my own summer island experience.