Man Booker Review #2 – “The Long Take” by Robin Robertson

Time for my second Man Booker shortlist review and of the three I have read so far, my favourite. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did; the subject matter – a D-Day veteran suffering from PTSD – did not appeal particularly and when I saw the format – extended verse – I found my heart sinking slightly. That’s totally unfair, and I can in no way begin to justify that reaction other than to say I just love a good solid novel! I am delighted to say I was completely wrong, and I think it’s great when our prejudices and preferences are tested and we are pleasantly surprised.

The Long Take imgThe central character is Walker, a man from rural Nova Scotia, who fought with the Allied forces in the D-Day landings. He has seen and experienced terrible events, death and injury that most of us can barely even imagine, and he survived. After the end of the war, he goes back to the United States and finds himself living among the homeless in New York City. The book is divided into four sections: 1946, 1948, 1951 and 1953 each set in a different US city (though Los Angeles is the setting for both 1948 and 1953). As he reflects on his experiences, it becomes clear that it was impossible for him to return home to Canada. He reminisces about the quiet, gentle life he led there, where the rhythms of the seasons, the dependence on the harvests of the seas, and community events (such as village hall dances) dominate everyone’s existence. It’s as if the contrast between that life and the brutality he witnessed in the war means he fears contaminating the innocence of those he has left behind. He can never go back, never unsee what he has seen, and those he once loved will never be able to understand how he has been changed.

In New York City, Walker lives among the vulnerable and the dispossessed. He is already suffering the effects of his PTSD:

A dropped crate or a child’s shout, or car

                Backfiring, and he’s in France again’

                That taste in his mouth. Coins. Cordite. Blood.”

In 1948 Walker moves to Los Angeles and begins working on a city newspaper, initially writing film reviews, but then, as his profile grows and he earns respect among fellow journalists for his writing, he is given weightier projects. He persuades his Editor to let him do an extended investigation into homelessness. This takes him to San Francisco in 1951, and then back to LA in 1953. Walker is an observer, he seems to move on the periphery. He earns the trust of the cast of characters he befriends on the streets and his own personal trauma enables him to empathise with them:

                “People; just like him.

                Having given up the country for the city,

                Boredom for fear, the faces

                Gather here in these streets

                Like spectators in a dream.

                They wanted to be anonymous

                Not swallowed whole, not to disappear.”

The final part of the book is the most intensely drawn. Walker recalls the devastation of older parts of the city, the traditional buildings, to make way for modern concrete highways and car parks, fuelled by corruption in the city authorities and mafia money. In the process many of the itinerant population were made homeless from whatever meagre shelter they had created for themselves and effectively thrown onto the scrap heap. The account of the destruction of the soul of the city is juxtaposed with vivid and detailed descriptions of the war:

                “The side of a building fell like a tree.

                Then the rest of it just collapsed

                In on itself, immediately lost

                In a dense cloud of brick dust;

                The delay of the noise and shock waves.

                There was an army there, pulling down everything north of 1st.

                …

The sound of mortars like gravel on a metal slide; a running tear. Right next to me, young Benjamin took some shrapnel in the throat: his windpipe torn open, so he’s gargling blood and staring at me, fumbling at his neck like he feels his napkin is slipping.”

What is fascinating and moving about the work is how Walker’s wartime experiences have made him more human, more empathic, whereas those who live oblivious are consumed by inhumanity, lack of feeling for others and, in the case of the authorities, cruelty. America is failing those in need in the pursuit of economic growth, greed and modernism.

I thought I would find the verse structure annoying, but it is beautiful, as is the economy of Robertson’s language. It perfectly suits the slightly ethereal, enigmatic central character and his own relatively silent presence in the communities in which he moves and verse provides a way of creating the vivid imagery of his wartime recollections.

I recommend this book highly. Don’t be put off if you are not used to reading verse, you will get used to it quickly. An amazing piece of work.

What is your favourite book on the Man Booker 2018 shortlist so far?

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Book review ‘Salt to the Sea’ by Ruta Sepetys

I saw Ruta Sepetys speak at the Hay Festival in May and I’m so glad I did, because otherwise this book may not have crossed my radar. It’s being marketed as a Young Adult novel (though DO NOT let that put you off) and there were many young people in the audience with whom Ruta was gracious, charming and generally lovely.

RutaThis book is magnificent and I urge you to read it. It was my book club read this month and we all loved it. It concerns a period in hsitory that is seldom openly discussed – the brutality of the Russian advance into Germany at the end of the WW2. One of the earliest books I reviewed on this blog was A Woman in Berlin (Anonymous author) which was an account, reputedly a true story, of the siege of that city and its final capture by Russian troops who, half-starved and brutalised themselves, set about rape and pillage of the native population (which by that stage was mostly women, children, older men and the infirm) on an industrial scale. It is tough reading. My WW2 history is not great so correct me if I’m wrong, but these events are not widely recognised and discussed because of course Stalin was part of the Allied group which defeated Hitler. There was, and, arguably, continues to be, a reluctance to openly acknowledge anything which might tarnish the glory of that victory. We all know that the Allies committed many atrocities in the name of war, but somehow these have been brushed over.

Enough of the political history because Salt to the Sea is so much more than that; it concerns an event that almost no-one knows about, the sinking of the civilian ship Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 by a Russian submarine, resulting in the largest loss of life at sea in maritime history, My children at school know all about the Titanic, thanks to the movie and the 100th anniversary of its sinking in 2012. A little over 1,500 people died in that disaster. Nine thousand died on the Wilhelm Gustloff, over half of them children and almost all of them desperate refugees.

It is a story beautifully and skilfully told through the eyes of four characters – Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse, Florian, A Prussian who worked for but then subsequently fled from the Nazi art theft effort, Emilia, a Polish girl from Lwow, whose parents sent her away from home to live with a German family with whom they thought she would be safe, and Alfred, a young German soldier, conceited, inept and deluded. Joana, Florian and Emilia are part of a small group, which includes an elderly shoemaker nicknamed ‘Poet’, a young boy, Klaus, a young blind girl, Ingrid, and Eva, a bold and forthright German woman. The raggle-taggle group has come together on the road, along with thousands of others, and is making its way to Gotenhafen, fleeing the brutal Russian advance, in the hope of boarding a ship which will take them further west and to what they hope will be relative safety.

It is the end of the war and they all know the Nazi Reich is close to collapsing, but the military remains in charge and committed to the Fuhrer’s cause. The group is also well aware of the fates of others who have fallen into the hands of Russian soldiers, some of them having direct experience of Russian violence. The group is facing multiple threats, not just from the Nazis and the Russians, but also from starvation and sickness. We follow the group as they trek across Prussia, learning about their back-stories, and the relationships between the group’s members evolve.

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“Freedom” – my copy, signed by the author!

Once they reach Gotenhafen, they feel relief and begin to feel safe. Although the town has become a ghetto, with thousands of desperate people trying to escape on a handful of ships, they are hopeful and begin to imagine a future once again. Alfred is one of the sailors on the ship and by the time the group meets him we have learned much about his earlier life. He will become an important character in the events our group is about to face, and his back-story is important to understanding the motivation behind his actions.

For the reader, the tension here is excruciating because although the characters are hopeful and relieved, we know that tragedy will strike the ship. It is just a question of who, if any of them, will survive.

Sometimes, knowledge of the general outcome of a story can have a profound effect on your reading experience. This was very much the case for me here. The tentative joy, so long held-back and so fragile, that the characters experience, contrasted so deeply with the doom and dread that I felt for them.

This is a Young Adult novel and I would suggest that it is appropriate for 14 years and upwards. Even then, some younger teens might find it quite challenging. I would liken it to The Book Thief. The characters are fictional, but the events portrayed in this book are real and we have a duty to acknowledge what happened in the past rather than to airbrush it.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

A little light reading

I usually have two or three books on the go at any one time – at the moment it’s my book club book and a children’s book, and then I usually have one other. Sometimes this ‘other’ is necessary as a bit of light relief! Many people tell me that they love to read, but can’t find the time, so they read in bed…and fall asleep after a few pages. I know that feeling! It makes reading anything at the more challenging end of the spectrum very frustrating because you can easily lose the flow.

In this grave hour imgI have learnt my lesson and carve-out reading time for myself in the day. My bedtime reading is usually reserved for lighter books, entertainment. I have recently discovered the Maisie Dobbs series by British-American writer Jacqueline Winspear. I picked up In This Grave Hour whilst browsing at the local library. Set in London in 1939, at the time of the outbreak of World War Two, my principal interest in it was as background for a book I am currently working on. I ended up enjoying the book far more than I expected.

Maisie Dobbs is a private detective, working in London. She is titled, due to marriage, but hails from a humble background herself, though she clearly has many high level Establishment connections. Maisie is a widow, her husband having been killed in the First World War. There is clearly a sadness to her life, as there seems always to be with great literary detectives.

The mystery Maisie solves in this book concerns the violent murders of three Belgians, all of whom escaped Europe and the Nazis as they began to make their way across the continent. Maisie uncovers links between the incidents that the police have been unable to find. At the same time, war preparations are being made in London and children are beginning to be evacuated from the city, including to her own father and stepmother in Kent. Maisie finds herself particularly drawn to a young girl who goes to live with them, whose identity is unknown and who refuses to speak. Another, parallel, mystery that Maisie has to get to the bottom of.

Once I had got past my snobbery about the “this kind of book”, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was easy to read, a good story, competently written and with easy likeable characters. In This Grave Hour is the thirteenth book in the series, (the fourteenth was published earlier this year), and the author seems to have produced one a year pretty consistently. The first book is set, I believe, at the end of the First World War. It reminded me of a couple of books I have read in the past, the Kate Shackleton Mysteries by Frances Brody. Set in the 1920s, the heroine is a widowed private detective, based in Yorkshire. I read Murder in the Afternoon and Murder on a Summer’s Day, which I have reviewed on here, and enjoyed them both. There are nine Kate Shackleton books altogether.

So, if you’re looking for some light reading, for bedtime, or perhaps for a forthcoming holiday, I would recommend either Maisie Dobbs or Kate Shackleton. You could do a lot worse and you may actually find they keep you awake!

What is your recommended ‘light reading’?

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Film review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I was feeling a bit glum last week (two teenagers and one in training, need I say more?!) so I decided that an afternoon at the cinema with a feel-good movie was in order. I’d heard about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (hereafter shortened to The GLPPPS) on Front Row a few weeks ago and it sounded interesting. It is a really lovely movie, and there is much more to it than just “feel-good” with a bit of romance; it covers historical events about which I’m ashamed to say I knew very little, and it is very engaging.

Successful, beautiful young author Juliet Ashton appears to have it all; she lives in London, where she is planning to buy a new flat, which she can well afford from her fabulous authorly earnings, and is romantically involved with an American military officer, who wants to whisk her off to New York to be his wife. But a dark shadow looms over her existence and she knows there is something missing in her life. Bored with her book tours she accepts a commission from The Times to write an article when, out of the blue, she receives a letter from a farmer in Guernsey, Dawsey Adams, which intrigues her. He has by chance come across a copy of Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare with her name and former London address written in it. Her past home was destroyed in the War, and both her parents were killed, so the contact marks an emotional moment for her. In his letter, Dawsey writes briefly about the GLPPPS and asks if she might forward another book for the group to read (books were very difficult for them to get hold of when the Nazis occupied the island).

Juliet is intrigued, not only by the request, but also by the strange name of the Society. We have already learned a little of the Society’s origins – its five members were apprehended by a Nazi patrol after curfew after they had shared a roast pork dinner from an illegally concealed pig. At the time of the occupation, locals were forbidden to keep hold of their livestock as all meat was confiscated for the benefit of the German soldiers. As a result the islanders were nearly starved, hence living on delights such as Potato Peel Pie (“no flour, no butter, just potato peel”). The shared meal marks a connection and coming together for the five lonely individuals looking for some togetherness at a very dark time. The Society is ‘authorised’ by the Germans and they continue to meet. It becomes their lifeline. The instigator of the Society, Elizabeth McKenna, is the best friend of Jane, daughter of Amelia Maugery, another of the Society’s founding members.

Juliet decides to go to Guernsey to write about the Society and when she arrives she is immediately won over by their passion for literature, their humanity and their story. She tells them, naively, that she would like to write about them for her article in The Times and assumes they will be only too delighted to give her their blessing. Juliet encounters unexpected hostility, however, in particular from Amelia (played by the marvellous Penelope Wilton), who believes that Juliet, with her London ways, has merely come to gawp at these unsophisticated islanders and that she understands nothing of their lives.

Juliet is horrified that her new friends should be offended by her proposal and desires to dig a little deeper, to understand better and to uncover the truth about what they endured in the occupation. Thus, her weekend stay becomes indefinitely extended, much to the annoyance of Juliet’s fiance, Mark Reynolds. Juliet develops close relationships with other Society members Isola and, of course, the handsome Dawsey. She learns from them that Amelia has never recovered from the death of her daughter Jane, and the unborn child she was carrying, from German bombing at the time of the invasion. She also learns more about Dawsey’s young daughter Kit, and about what has happened to Elizabeth.

I will say no more as it’s a cracking story and I don’t want to spoil it. Multiple plot lines are maintained throughout, and the flashbacks to the origins of the Society and the events that befell them in the War are very well done. The dimension of Juliet’s engagement to her American lover, and her long-standing friendship with her protective publisher, provide interesting side stories.  It has a super cast, the characters are well-played, and the Guernsey scenery is stunning – I predict this film will do much for Channel Islands tourism!

Highly recommended and definitely improved my week!

If you get to see this film I’d love to hear what you thought of it.

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Thoughts on writing a book #1

Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the UK today. TV programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? are often at the top of the ratings tables and the largest family tree website Ancestry.com has almost 3 million paying subscribers worldwide and has access to 20 billion records in 80 countries. It is big business, for sure. Finding out where we have come from is a deep human need. Perhaps it helps us towards a better understanding of ourselves and what makes us tick. And as our world becomes ever more dynamic, busy and harder to navigate, that self-understanding becomes an important part of maintaining our identity, staying rooted

Scan0003
My Grandmother Rose, with my baby brother and I, 1971

Most of us will have done a basic family tree at some point in our lives. I did one at primary school and can remember interviewing my grandparents to find out about their parents and siblings. I actually dug out this juvenile work a few months ago when I started the research for a book I am currently writing. I am writing a novel about my grandmother. The working title is Finding Rose. She was born in 1910 into a very poor family in East London, the seventh of ten children. She had a very limited education, having developed a disability called benign essential tremor. She had a ‘shake’ all her life which meant she had very poor motor skills, never able to write for example. My father, her second child, was born in Hertford on 22nd December 1940 (maternity patients were moved out of London because of the Blitz), while her husband, Charles, lay dying from tuberculosis in a hospital in Kent. He died on 26th December, without ever meeting his son, my father. Rose never remarried, but had another child in 1943 and brought up her three children on her own, though with the help of her sisters, through the Second World War. Rose outlived all her siblings, dying in 1995 at the age of 85. Incredible when you think where she started. I hope I have inherited these robust East End genes!

1911 census
Could this be my great-Grandfather’s handwriting?

Through my internet research I have uncovered some incredible information about Rose and her family. I got a shiver when I saw a facsimile of the actual 1911 census form showing the composition of 1 year old Rose’s family home. But we need more than facts, dates of birth, addresses, marriage dates, etc. It is the textural information that I feel the lack of now – what was Charles, my grandfather, like? Where did he and Rose meet? How did Rose cope when she lost her husband? There is no-one left alive to answer these questions. My own father passed away in 2010 and my aunt and uncle are now elderly. My book will attempt to write Rose’s life. It will be necessary for me to make up most of it, so it will be my best guess at the life she had. I’m sure much of it will be the life I hope she had.

Your father's roomI have been reading a lot of fictionalised biography to help me and one book I read recently I found profoundly moving. Your Father’s Room by French writer Michel Deon is part fiction, part memoir, and looks back to 1920s Paris and Monte Carlo. Edouard, or Teddy, is the only child of a civil servant and his socialite wife. The family moves to Monte Carlo with the father’s job and there is a fascinating insight to life in the south of France at that time, the characters connected to the family and the nature of the relationship between Teddy’s parents. If this is an account in part of the author’s childhood then much of Teddy’s observations will have been imagined by Deon. Perhaps like me he is taking fragments of memory, partial facts and knitting them together to tell a story. It is very engaging even though it is not clear what is truth and what is fiction. How much of any of our family history is a story anyway, ‘facts’ that have been embellished (or concealed) over the years?

Your Father’s Room is a beautiful little book (under 100 pages) with a poignant ending, and Deon writes magnificently. The translation is extremely good. I’ve learned a lot from this reading about how I might approach my own book (and if my writing turns out to be even half as good as this, I’ll be delighted!) and filling in the gaps with my own imagination. I’m about 20,000 words in now, and am hoping to complete a first draft by Christmas.

Wish me luck!

I’d love to hear your experiences of family research. What have you uncovered?

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‘East West Street’ by Philippe Sands

I’m going a bit highbrow this week – any lawyers in the room? I’m not a big reader of non-fiction, so a few months ago I set myself the task of reading a couple of books from the shortlist of the Baillie Gifford Prize, one of the most prestigious non-fiction awards in the world. I read Negroland by Margo Jefferson, which I really enjoyed and reviewed here back in February. East West Street actually won the prize; I enjoyed this a little less than Negroland, I have to say, but it is a remarkable work and it wasn’t what I was expecting.

East West Street img

These days we take for granted the terms ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’; they are used fairly frequently, especially since the Balkan war in the 1990s, and fairly interchangeably, it seems to me. But did you know that these were only established as legal terms at the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War? The gravity and scale of the crimes committed by the Nazis is largely undisputed, but when it came to actually bringing individuals to justice at the court of law in Nuremberg in the post-war atmosphere, charges had to be specified and evidence had to be considered. In many ways, it seems to me, it was a piece of theatre, but the legal minds at the time were severely exercised. And I guess if you are on the winning side, both militarily and morally, the pressure to maintain the moral high-ground is immense. The victors had to be seen to be following a path of rectitude and adherence to international standards of law.

“Jackson [presiding judge at the Nuremberg trial] crafted each word with care, signalling its significance. He spoke of the victors’ generosity and the responsibility of the vanquished, of the calculated, malignant, devastating wrongs that were to be condemned and punished. Civilization would not tolerate their being ignored, and they must not be repeated. ‘That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengenace and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgement of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to reason.'”

(p.288, quote from Judge Robert H. Jackson, opening the Nuremberg trial)

This book provides a historical account of the intellectual tussle between two of the finest legal minds of the time: Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin. Lauterpacht fought for the term ‘crimes against humanity’ whereas Lemkin wanted ‘genocide’. To most of us the differences between the two might seem inconsequential, but the differences are in fact, as is discussed in the book, fundamental to the basis of international law. This is not the place for me to rehearse the arguments (even if I could!). I did struggle with the legal minutiae of the book, though I was able to grasp the broad concepts and it certainly made me think about an issue which I can honestly say I have never thought about before. And it was interesting, honestly!

So far I have probably made the book seem dry and dull to the average reader (though perhaps sexy to any of you legal eagles!), but prizes are not won by being dry and uninteresting and the author is far more successful than that; by far the more engaging aspects of this book are the human stories. East West Street is a thoroughfare in the city of Lviv, in modern day Ukraine, but which has previously been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of Poland. It is also a town with which both Lauterpacht and Lemkin were linked. Lviv plays a central role in the book because it provides a snapshot of the Nazis’ ambitions and methods.

The heart of this book, however, is the author’s own quest to find out about his grandparents, Leon and Malke Buchholz, a young Jewish couple from Lviv who were forced to leave their home with their baby daughter Ruth, the author’s mother. Leon and Malke have revealed little about their early life and the author has many unanswered questions. Now dead, he sets about researching his grandfather’s early life, the circumstances of his marriage and how it was he came to be in England with Malke and Ruth. The author becomes a detective investigating his own family history and confronts some difficult truths, as is often the case. He conducts this search alongside his research into the legal basis of the Nuremberg trials and finds links and parallels.

The book is broken up into distinct parts: for example, the opening chapter is about Leon and his early life and then there are similar chapters on Lauterpacht and Lemkin. These were the chapters I found most engaging and most moving. Towards the end is a very long chapter about Nuremberg itself which was fascinating as it was not something I knew very much about before. Some parts of the book were for me overly detailed and I skimmed through some of these.

Unquestionably, however, there lies at the heart of this book a deep and terrible tragedy about which it is always worth being reminded: how prejudice, ideology, lies and propaganda, stupefied a nation, and, combined with power and determination, saw the murder of millions of people and displaced or traumatised many millions more and the consequences are still being felt down the generations today.

This is a powerful book which I recommend if you have an interest in history or the law, or if you just like to read about uncovering family stories. It looks daunting but it’s actually a quicker read than you might think.

Have you read any non-fiction books that recently that you recommend?

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