Tag Archives: non-fiction

Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August by Oliver Hilmes

“After the Olympics, we’ll get ruthless,” Goebbels confides in his diary on 7 August.” Then there will be some shooting.”

Berlin 1936: Sixteeen Days in August from Oliver Hilmes offers a kaleidoscope view of the Olympic games through the stories of a range of people: Nazi leaders, diplomats, socialites, writers, journalists, spies, nightclub owners, and, of course, the athletes. All this is set against the city of Berlin: a city in flux with the glories and decadence of Weimar culture fading fast–although some people were slower than others to catch on to the new reality and the horrific future.

The book, which contains some marvelous photographs from the period, begins on August 1, 1936 with the president of the International Olympic committee, Henri de Baillet-Latour, who according to Goebbels’ diary entry is one of “the Olympians [who] look like the directors of a flea circus.” This comment sets the tone for the book: appearance vs reality. For while the Olympics are solemnly held with respect for tradition, to Hitler, the games were a wonderful opportunity for propaganda. Already, on page 16 when the games open, Hitler is presented with a “symbolic Olive branch” which is followed by the athletes, who “represented by the German weightlifter, Rudolf Ismayr–take the Olympic oath.” Then in a break from protocol “after taking the vow, he waves  a Swastika flag instead of the Olympic one.”

Parties and receptions: the Olympics are swathed with glittering events. As journalist Bella Fromm notes, “The propaganda machinery is trying to give visitors a positive impression of the Third Reich using the Olympics as camouflage.”

But behind the scenes of the Olympics, interesting events are taking place. Interior Minister, Wilhem Frick ordered a “gypsy manhunt day,” and two weeks before the Olympic games opened, around 600 people are rounded up and dumped in a camp on the outskirts of Berlin. The publication of the Nazi hate-rag Der Stürmer is suspended while all these important foreign visitors are in town.

There’s a ‘while Rome burns’ feel to the book. Berlin’s famous nightclubs are still operating, but “the Quartier Latin is a volcano, and patrons dance on its edge.” Similarly, The Ciro Bar and The Sherbini bar are thriving, but time is running out…

Underneath the idea that life in Berlin is ‘normal’ we see glimpses of the seemingly innocuous ‘Travel Union Club’ otherwise known as Legion Condor, well armed, heading to Spain. And then there’s the “free German press in exile” who publish and smuggle into Germany a 16 page pamphlet.

“Get to Know Beautiful Germany: An Indispensable Guide For Every Visitor to the Olympic Games in Berlin.” The cover featured an idyllic German landscape, but inside a map pinpoints almost all of the then-existing concentration camps, penal facilities and court prisons. ‘SA torture chambers have not been included,” a footnote read. “They are too many in number.”

In Berlin, American Author Thomas Wolfe who “doesn’t like Jews” mouths off about how “people are free to speak and write and think some things in Germany that they are not free to speak and write in America. For example, in Germany you are free to speak and write that you do not like Jews and that you think Jews are bad, corrupt and unpleasant people. In America, you are not free to say this.” But Wolfe expresses this naive opinion to the wrong person: Mildred Harnack, and it’s from her that for the first time, Wolfe hears the term, “concentration camp.

Since arriving in Berlin, Wolfe has never seen any public evidence of the tyranny she described. But what if Germany is putting on a show to fool him and the other Olympic visitors? What if the Games are just a gigantic piece of propaganda? And what if the Germans Wolfe meets every day are just extras in an exceedingly horrible play?

Berlin 1936 is initially a dizzying read, but then the central idea of appearance vs reality takes over. The author’s original approach to a slice of history is compelling and effective. Each chapter is prefaced with the report of the weather (there’s great irony here) and police reports are scattered through the text. At the end of the book, there’s a section ‘what became of.’ and in this chapter, the author traces the lives of some of the characters mentioned.

Review copy

Translated by Jefferson Chase

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Filed under Hilmes Oliver, Non Fiction

Children of Nazis: The Sons and Daughters of Himmler, Göring, Höss, Mengele and Others. Living with a Father’s Legacy: Tania Crasnianski

A few years ago I watched Hitler’s Children, a documentary which explored the lives of some of the offspring of the Nazi elite. It was a fascinating film, and so when I saw Tania Crasnianski’s Children of Nazis, I knew I wanted to read it.

Under scrutiny here are:

Gudren Himmler

Edda Göring

Wolf R. Hess

Niklas Frank

Martin Adolf Bormann Jr.

The Höss children

The Speer Children

Rolf Mengele

One of the many things I carried away from Hitler’s Children was the range of reactions experienced by the younger relatives of the Nazi elite. Some were in total denial, while others were horrified when they finally learned the truth, and the same is true in the book. Children of Nazis presents each chapter with a brief history of exactly what each father did, followed by a description of the child’s upbringing, what happened after the war, and the child’s opinion of the father’s actions. These children had very different upbringings: Gudren Himmler had a secluded, claustrophobia “provincial bourgeois” upbringing while Edda Göring was treated like a Nazi princess, growing up in a castle with an actress mother and a flamboyant father who wore full make up and was addicted to morphine. Some of the children had excellent loving, relationships with their fathers, while others did not. Some of the children saw Jews from the concentration camps, while others were removed from that aspect of the war. Some children had happy home lives while others did not. Is it more difficult for a child of a leading Nazi to accept the father’s guilt if the child were removed from all signs of the war? If a Nazi father is a cold, remote man, is it easier to accept his responsibility in the genocide? How could the children brought up at Auschwitz deny their father’s responsibility?

Children of Nazis

But there are commonalities in these childhoods. After the war, many of the mothers were arrested and the children were isolated from broader society. As social pariahs, they were barred from schools, housing, and employment. And since, post 1945,  the mothers of the children remained faithful to the ideals of the Third Reich, this often threw the children exclusively into Nazi circles. There are also stories here of kindness shown to the children and this seemed to pay off in a big way. Pastor Lohmann, for example, “who made it his mission to open his doors to the children of the Nazi party, showing them it was possible for people who were not like them to love them.” Or the Jewish owners of Saks Jandel who kept Brigitte Höss’s secret that her father was the commandant of Auschwitz.

All these case studies cause the reader to question how we would have reacted in such cases. If these men were “good” fathers, and by that I mean kind and attentive to their children, how would a child put their father’s monstrous behavior out-of-the-house into any sort of context?

“There must have been two sides to him. The one that I knew and then another…. She also questioned the official number of Jews sent to their deaths: “How can there be so many survivors if so many had been killed.” (Birgitte Höss)

I particularly liked the chapters on Niklas Frank, the son of “the Butcher of Poland,” and Martin Adolf Bormann Jr. The chapter on Frank details how, as a child, he would go with his mother to the Warsaw ghetto. They arrived in a chauffeur driven limousine and Frank recalls as how as a young child, he noted corpses on the pavement, thin children dressed in rags staring at the car. Frank says his mother used the ghettos “as if they were discount stores especially designed for the Frank family.”

Martin Adolf Bormann Jr was sent, as a punishment, to a Nazi Party academy at age 10 and when the death of Hitler was announced, the news stunned the students:

For me, that was the end. I remember the moment vividly, but I cannot describe the silence that greeted the news … it must have lasted four hours. No one said a word, but eventually people began to go outside, and almost immediately, there was a gunshot, then another, and another. Inside, no one spoke, there was no sound, only the gunshots outside. We thought we were all going to die…. I saw no future for myself. Suddenly, behind the bodies that covered the courtyard, another boy, who was eighteen, appeared. He invited me to come sit next to him. The air smelled fresh, birds were singing, we were still alive. I know that, if we hadn’t been there for each other in that precise moment, neither of us would still be here. I know it. 

The author mentioned that while she intended to meet all of her subjects, “in the end,” she only interviewed one, Niklas Frank. Many of the subjects were dead, while others did not wish to be interviewed for a range of reasons. The author says something that really stuck “It is also true that some of these sons and daughters feel it is easier to be the ‘child of’ certain of these men rather than others.”

And this brings me to Dr Mengele. I can’t rate the Nazis listed in the book from 1-10 from best to worst. That’s not a job I want, but I can say that there’s something particularly repugnant about Mengele. The chapter on Mengele details the meeting between The Angel of Death and his son.

Children Of Nazis is a sobering read. These children were raised in the cult of the Third Reich, and were indoctrinated in those Aryan philosophies. Some managed to break free, but some did not.

Review copy

translated by Molly Grogan

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Filed under Crasnianski Tania, Non Fiction

True Stories: The Collected Short Non-Fiction Helen Garner

“People will always tell you more than you need to know–and more than they want you to know.”

At 800 pages, True Stories is a massive collection of Helen Garner’s non fiction work. A few years ago, I read this Australian author’s fantastic non-fiction  This House of Grief, and it made my best-of-year list. The book was emotionally wrenching, so I wasn’t ready for Joe Cinque’s Consolation. A compilation of the author’s work was enticing and promised, perhaps, a wide range of topics. I was right. In this book, Helen Garner gets everywhere: from a Russian ship that sails to the Antarctica, to the delivery room, the morgue, a gun show, the trial for the murder of Daniel Valerio, a bridal dressmaker’s shop, and a crematorium. She reminisces about an abandoned teaching career, makes observations of familial relationships, a mother sinking into dementia, moving, learning how to play the ukulele and the delights of being a grandmother.

True stories

Helen Garner is a writer who uses her writing to explore herself–something I noticed in  This House of Grief. So in one section of this collection, she describes how delighted she was with her appearance right before a glass of wine lands on her dress. This sort of personal anecdote may seem uninteresting for some readers, and while it’s true that I found some essays more interesting than others, I was also interested in how Garner seeks to understand herself through her writing. For anyone interested in Helen Garner (and even if you’re never read anything by her), this is an impressive collection.

Just as when I read This House of Grief, I didn’t always agree with the author, but I always enjoyed her view on life & living. Garner’s honesty adds a great deal of delight. In Regions of the Thick-Ribbed Ice (a favourite) for example, she admits how she dislikes penguins and wanted to take an orange pebble so badly from the beach in Antarctica, but managed suppressed her desire. At another point, she admits being ambushed by her love for her new granddaugher, and in yet another section, she talks about her love for the ukulele but her lack of expertise in spite of the passage of years. At one point she chronicles the search for a round table and then how a friend’s positive attitude propped up her negative feelings about the table when a craftsman derided its quality.

There are too many chapters to talk about them all, and anyway, whoever reads this is going to have their favourites. Parts are extremely personal, and yet at the same time, there are no rants about her spouses (ex-spouses) or a litany of their failings. But I’m going to talk about the things I take away from this collection:  Helen Garner’s innate curiosity about human behaviour (and that includes herself). The murder trial of little Daniel Valerio is a case in point. What on earth possessed the boy’s stepfather (the man who beat the boy to death) to “make mocking gestures, leering and waving,” to the dead child’s father? When the stepfather bragged of the beatings to coworkers, why did no one report him?

I circle round the dark area of life (mine or someone else’s) to which my curiosity is attracted, and I search for a way in. 

There are a couple of wonderful essays about the author Patrick White. Patrick White: The Artist as Holy Monster is written after Helen Garner reads Marr’s biography of White. She notes “White’s periodic cullings of even his closet friends, using tiny slights or hesitations as pretexts for a ferocious slashing away of their links with him.” Garner had the good and bad fortune to meet Patrick White on two occasions, and while she remembers his kindness the first time they met, she then recalls how badly he behaved with “random, bitchy swipes” on their second meeting. Even this meeting, though, which could end in some nasty observations about White includes Garner’s realization that she allowed White to rant about people and offered no defense–“This is something worth knowing,” she admits. She also speculates about White’s companion, Manoly Lascaris, and how he managed to endure White’s temperament.

Good manners, or great art? Are the two mutually exclusive? Women and men who serve as creators, as Lascaris did, gamble their whole lives on their instincts about their partners’ abilities: a tremendous, dizzying bet.

In Sing For Your Supper, Garner writes about writers’ festivals, and the disappointment she felt when talking to a writer whose story she admired. This is magnified as Garner attends more festivals and observes that the performances of writers at festivals may not necessarily reflect the true quality of their work.

The trouble is that the attractiveness or apparent honesty of the writer is no guarantee of the quality of the work. Plenty of good writers are jerks in person, while others who are charming and generous in the flesh are boring, phoney or feeble n the page.

Finally, Garner’s pure enjoyment of Jolley planted the urge to pick up an Elizabeth Jolley novel.

‘In the middle of the journey of our life’, when we begin to start to feel the weight of the crimes we are hauling behind us, we might turn to literature for wisdom. It is not readily available, but I have always found it in Elizabeth Jolley, even before I knew what I was looking for.

This book review is a contribution for the Australian Women Writers challenge of 2018

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Painfully Rich:John Pearson

“A lasting relationship with a woman is only possible if you’re a business failure.”

Author John Pearson’s non fiction account of the Getty family begins with the death of J. Paul Getty. J (Jean) Paul Getty (1892-1976) was worth billions, yet, in life and in death, he was notoriously stingy. There’s the incident of how he installed a pay phone in his mansion and then his long-time faithful servants and employees who had served him faithfully for years “received scant crumbs from America’s richest table.” For all the wealth this man had, it certainly didn’t seem to make him happier, and as the stories of his children and grandchildren unfold, we can see that money didn’t make his life less complicated. J. Paul Getty comes across as an isolated, idiosyncratic man.

Painfully rich

Great wealth is, IMO, a burden, and while we see some wealthy people such as Jeff and Mackenzie Bezos and Bill & Melinda Gates creating foundations with millions of dollars, we get the sense almost immediately that Getty was definitely all about himself.  He had a large number of love affairs and he was married five times. He had five children from four of those marriages. Perhaps you’d think that you’d hit the jackpot if you met and married J. Paul Getty, but after reading this book, I had the sense that for each of Getty’s wives, it just wasn’t their day when they met J. Paul Getty.

His real love was not for women, who were incidental, but for money, which was not. And he had proved himself a faithful and romantic partner during his lifelong love affair with wealth, jealously acquiring it, and making it increase, in massive quantities, across a period of more than sixty years.

His avarice was an incidental aspect of this love. How can one bear to waste the object of one’s adoration?

Author John Pearson takes us back into Getty’s childhood. J. Paul Getty’s parents, Sarah and George, were deeply religious, George had intended to be a schoolmaster, but Sarah, three years his senior, made him promise that he’d go to law school, using her dowry to pay the fees. It’s through J.Paul Getty’s parents that we see the drive and ambition for social improvement, but in their case it was tempered and harnessed by their strict religious beliefs. When J. Paul Getty arrived, his parents had lost a ten year old child to typhoid, and so this late-life son was born to a 40-year-old indulgent mother. Yet even this wasn’t simple:

Paul, though cosseted and protected, had a lonely and loveless childhood. His mother actively discouraged contact with other children from fear of fresh contagion. And while over protective with her son, she was careful not to show him too much love in case she lost him as she had lost his sister.

Years later, Paul told his wife that as a child he was never cuddled-nor did he have a birthday party of a Christmas tree. 

As the Gettys’ wealth grew from oil, the family relocated to Los Angeles. J. Paul Getty showed an early predilection for amorous adventures and could not apply himself to formal higher education. I loved the story of how he set sail to attend Oxford in August 1912 and arrived in November, armed with a letter of introduction from the President of the United States. Exactly what Getty achieved academically is muddied (he says he got a diploma). This period was the root of Getty’s love affair with England–a love affair second only to his love affair with money, and a love affair that lasted far longer than any relationship with a woman.

It took J. Paul Getty’s father putting the squeeze on his dilettante son to turn his son from a man who spent money to a man who made money. And when J. Paul Getty’s mother got a whiff of her son’s misbehaviour (“marital fever,”) and as she saw it, his risky business tactics, she set up the “irrevocable spendthrift trust” in order to protect the “interests of his children against the possible results of his business speculation.” 

The trust sounds like a good idea, and it certainly had its tax advantages. (At one point the author states that J.Paul Getty bragged he never pay more than $500 a year in taxes.) But the trust treated the children from Paul’s various marriages unfairly with unequal division and also stated that the grandchildren would not inherit their share until the last of J. Paul’s sons were dead.

The book details the way J. Paul Getty basically ignored his children as he moved on from marriage to marriage, love affair to love affair, and how then when they were grown, he slotted them into various positions within his empire, creating rivalry and division amongst his sons.

Of course, there’s also space given to the scandals. The eldest son, George, stabbed himself  with a barbecue fork and died of a drug overdose. There’s there’s the hippie period of Eugene and the mysterious death of his second wife. And then of course, there’s the kidnapping of Getty’s grandson, John Paul Getty III. His kidnappers underestimated his grandfather’s stinginess

I have fourteen grandchildren, and if I pay a penny of ransom, I’ll have fourteen kidnapped grandchildren.

The kidnappers sent Paul’s ear to his mother, and negotiations for a $3 million ransom gelled with Paul’s grandfather kicking in a loan of $800,000 to his son to be repaid at 4% interest.

Painfully Rich conveys the idea that Getty’s fortune served as a curse on the family. Who wouldn’t want billions, and yet with the Gettys, it came with a price. But one final thing… J. Paul Getty can’t have been all bad. Mention is made of the Getty Museum, and I’ve been there. It’s fantastic and if you’ve never been and you get a chance, go.

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Difficult Women: David Plante

“You like difficult women, don’t you?”

David Plante’s non fiction book Difficult Women chronicles the author’s relationships with three women: Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, and finally, Germaine Greer. What do these three women have in common? They are/were ‘difficult,’ according to the author, and by the time the book is finished, many questions are raised, not just about the relationships recorded in the book, but relationships in general. Why are we attracted to some people and not others? What do we seek in relationships? Why do we expect people to give us what we want when this so obviously won’t happen?

difficult women

It’s 1975 when the author goes to a shabby, depressing hotel in South Kensington for a meeting with Jean Rhys. Jean Rhys is now elderly, over 80, in trouble with her taxes, and a heavy drinker (no surprise there). The author, David Plante, is there in a professional capacity and ends up helping piece together Jean Rhys’s autobiography. It’s not an easy job. Jean’s mind wanders, she’s cantankerous, and manipulative. Anyone who’s read any of Jean Rhys’s novels shouldn’t be surprised to find the descriptions of an elderly Rhys depressing.

This section of the book raises ethical/moral questions. Jean Rhys is a wreck but should this be written about?  But why not? The details of her dodgy make up seem cruel, but then again, are writers, esteemed or otherwise, sacrosanct?

As her hands were shaky, her make-up was hit-and-miss; there were patches of thick beige powder on her jaw and on the side of her nose, her lipstick was as much around her lips as on them, the marks of the eye pencil criss-crossed her lids, so I thought she might easily have jabbed it in her eyes. But the eyes were very clear and blue and strong, and the angles of her cheekbones sharp.

Jean Rhys, naturally, has many stories to tell, mostly between drinks. It’s almost an entirely one-way relationship with Jean talking and the author listening. At one point he mentions his mother:

“How can you like listening to me talk on and on?”

I said, “I used to listen to my mother-“

The corner of her upper lip rose and her face took on the hardness of an old whore who, her eyes red with having wept for so long, suddenly decides to be hard. “Your mother?” she snapped. “I don’t want to hear about your mother.”

I shut up. I thought: What am I doing here, listening to her? Is it because she is a writer? I am not sure I have read all her books, not even sure I admire her greatly as a novelist. Is it because I want to know her so well that I will know her better than anyone else, or know at least secrets she has kept from everyone else, which I will always keep to myself? If so, why?

The relationship with Jean remains difficult. There are times when the author thinks about walking away, but he always returns but can never really pin down Jean’s true opinions. He never infiltrates Jean’s deeper, more intimate memories; she’s locked in the past, but it’s a version of the past which wavers under examination.

I think of how Hardy was protected by his wife, Florence, with a very specific presentation given to the world. After a certain age, mentally fragile people probably should stop giving interviews or limit access unless it’s under some protective supervision. (Of course, some people shouldn’t open their mouths in public, period, but that’s a different story entirely.)

The second section concerns Sonia Orwell. If the section on Jean Rhys is sad, the section on Sonia Orwell is depressing. The author describes Sonia’s tendency, as he sees it, to continually censure others–like some moral policeman. Sonia is a woman of very strong opinions, and over the course of the relationship, the author continually sees Sonia become involved in the problems of others–in a voyeuristic fashion, and when she becomes interested in someone, because of their problems, then she becomes a moral champion whose understanding cannot be matched.

She said, the hardness now, in her voice, “That’s nothing to joke about. It’s a very sad affair, a very very sad affair, and not to be treated frivolously.”

“I”m sorry,” I said.

My flowers in her hand, she said, “No one seems to understand what happens in human relationships, and the sadness of it all. It isn’t anything to joke about. It really isn’t.” 

Sonia also, according to the author, has the habit of picking a “victim” at her parties, “usually a male,” and then this person is belittled every time he opens his mouth. Again the author seeks a deeper, more personal relationship but it isn’t forthcoming. Sonia comes across as humourless, but the author persists in seeking out her company even though the results are mostly aversive.

The final, highly entertaining, section features Germaine Greer. The first view we have of Germaine Greer is not pleasant as she swears like a sailor at a toddler who isn’t fingerpainting ‘properly.’ To be perfectly honest, I came to this section without much prior knowledge of this feminist icon, but I left feeling impressed. What a woman! Yes, probably too much, too competent, too capable, too intelligent, too demanding for any one man, but the force of life bubbling under the surface of Germaine’s skin is evident. The author travels with Germaine Greer to Italy and later meets her in Tulsa, Oklahoma (of all places). In one scene, she chops up a testicle for her cats, in another she talks in Italian about shock absorbers, in another possesses all the technical terms to order up, in Italian, the “proper bricks” for a dovecot she designed. There’s a term for the “renaissance man, ” but what’s the female version?

I recognized that she was always doing something other in her mind, and as intense as her concentration was in what she was doing, there was an air about her of considering, more intensely, something else. I had the vivid impression from her of, at some high level, trying to sort out, not her personal problems , but other people’s problems.

Germaine clearly doesn’t tolerate boors or fools, and milquetoasts had better steer clear. While the author does achieve a personal relationship with Germaine, it’s not quite what he expected, and although these portraits are of three very different women, somehow they reflect back an image of the man who wrote them.

So one man’s view of three women. I wonder what they thought of him? The best biographies offer multiple opinions from multiple relationships. Ask ten different people their opinions of anyone, and you’ll get ten different answers. But here we have memoirs from a man who knew three incredible women. The book was apparently notorious in its day for its backstabbing betrayals. It’s probably less astonishing now, thanks to the invasive times we live in, but it’s still a fascinating read.

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Browse : The World in Bookshops edited by Henry Hitchings

“It is on our own bookshelves, packed with our purchases, that we find the archives of our desires, enthusiasms and madnesses.” (Henry Hitchings)

In Pushkin Press’s Browse: The World in Bookshops I expected a collection of essays about bookshops from around the globe, but the book is far richer than that; it’s a celebration of the glory of reading. Anyone who reads and loves books, anyone who cannot imagine a life without books, will dip into these essays and find a great deal to love and chew over, even as we reminisce about the great bookshops in our own lives.

Browse

The introduction from Henry Hitchings takes a predictable, yet interesting stand as he takes us through various bookshops at various stages of his life. The word ‘predictable’ is not to be taken negatively as all readers can most likely recall the watershed book moments in their lives. Hitchings leads the reader into themes which appear in the other essays–bookshops where readers hang out, booksellers who jealously guard their stock, the hunt for the unknown, the quest for the impossible find.

There are 15 essays:

Bookshop Time: Ali Smith (Scotland)

Something that Doesn’t Exist: Andrey Kurkov (Ukraine)

The Pillars of Hercules: Ian Sansom (UK)

A Tale of Two Bookshops: Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia)

Leitner and I: Saša Stanišić (Bosnia)

All that Offers a Happy Ending is a Fairy Tale: Yiyun Li (China)

If You Wound a Snake: Alaa Al Aswany (Egypt)

Desiderium: The Accidental Bookshop of Nairobi: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenya)

Snow Day: Michael Dirda (USA)

Dussmann: A Conversation: Daniel Kehlmann (Germany)

La Palmaverde: Stefano Benni (Italy)

A Bookshop in the Age of Progress: Pankaj Mishra (India)

Intimacy: Dorthe Nors (Denmark)

Bohemia Road: Iain Sinclair (Wales)

My Homeland is Storyland: Elif Shafak (Turkey)

Ali Smith talks about the “detritus” we find in books while the essay from Dorthe Nors is arguably the most personal. The essay involves a troubling incident with a nasty bookseller (Dorthe, if you read this, she was probably a frustrated writer). In Elif Shafak’s essay My Homeland is Storyland, she recalls her grandmother being an “amazing storyteller” with the stories all beginning “once there was, once there wasn’t.”  This opening line matches the contradictions in the author’s childhood.

A few essays illustrate how politics can impact bookshops. While much of Andrey Kurkov’s essay focuses on Bukinist in Ukraine, he gives us a different vision of the ever-topical subject of bookshop survival:

I can clearly remember the time of transition to a new order: in 1991, the stark contrast between grocery shops, with their empty shelves and arrogant, ill-mannered employees, and bookshops, where the bewildered staff stood before shelves full of Soviet literature which was of no use to anyone anymore. Bookshops were the first victims of the crisis. They closed meekly and without protest, without even trying to fight for their survival.

In Alaa Al Aswany’s essay If You Wound a Snake, it’s the twilight of Mubarak’s rule in Egypt, and the author attends a book signing attended by readers and a few Agent Provocateurs minglers.  In Desiderium: The Accidental Bookshop of Nairobi, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor describes returning to Nairobi which is in a period of “delirium of reconstructive surgery” and the hunt for a much-loved bookshop from childhood.

Yiyun Li grew up unaware that “there was such a thing as a bookshop.” Later comes the chaos of Beijing and books kept behind counters or in glass cases.  Finally in a bookshop, Yiyun Li encounters a great mystery behind a sign: “Foreign Visitors Not Allowed.”  This essay reinforces how lucky we are to have libraries, bookshops or just the ways and means to buy books.

In Pankaj Mishra’s essay A Bookshop in the Age of Progress, he notes that the word ‘bookshop’ meant a place you could buy school textbooks with “some variety offered by mobile bookshops subsidized by the Soviet Union.” When the author finally visits a real bookshop, he longs to be the sort of customer who can afford the wonderful books he sees stocked on the shelves.

One of my favourites in the collection is The Pillars of Hercules from Ian Sansom, and this essay focuses on the author’s two years spent working at Foyle’s Bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. While he notes that “working at Foyles was not really a career choice; it was supposed to be a stop-gap,” he lingered there while the shop became his “own personal library.

I was initially a little bothered by Michael Dirda’s essay Snow Day. The author’s wife is safely out of the picture, and so he takes a day to prowl through Second Story Books, a shop the author confirms will remain open until the snow falls. If you’re wondering why I was bothered by the essay, well it’s because the author frequently tells us how much everything costs (and how much it’s worth). This is explained by his admission “bear in mind that I grew up the son of a working-class, shopaholic mother who loved bargains.” Gradually, no that’s not true, rapidly, I began to warm to Dirda when he mentions that he rents a storage unit for books (which may amount to 15,000-20,000 books). Finally someone worse than me!

Yet, am I, in fact, a collector? Somewhere I read that if you couldn’t lay your hands on any book you owned in five minutes, you were just an accumulator, a hoarder. I couldn’t lay my hands on some of my books if I had five days to search for them.

Dirda admits he’s learned the “prudence of sneaking any newly acquired treasures into the house as covertly as possible. There’s nothing like a baleful glance from one’s beloved spouse to ruin a good day’s booking.” I laughed out loud when he said he’s only in top form in the bookshop for the first 4-5 hours. We readers know that no one else can match our stamina. Well for looking at books, at least.

Snow Day and Iain Sinclair’s Bohemia Road, are in the final judgment, my favorites in the collection. The former because I identified so much with the author, and the latter because the author catalogues the history of a great bookshop in the context of the history of its location and the rising value of real estate. Iain Sinclair tells the story of Bookmans Halt bought by a new owner in 1980 and closed in 2016. The bookshop survived “Thatcherite economics”  but by the time of its demise was a haven for those who used the shop as a baseline to price online.

Bohemia Road was the perfect address for a functioning used-book pit that represented everything now amputated from the good life in the imaginary state we call England. 

By presenting the history of the bookshop’s address, Sinclair presents a history of economic trends. Finally free of the shop (a “pygmy kingdom”), the owner seems liberated and “revived.”  The end of Bookmans Halt is a sign of the shifting times. We all tend to moan about the loss of bookshops, but is this just the sound of progress–the machinery of the figurative backhoe?

After finishing the last essay, I found myself wondering what makes some people such avid readers. Some of the writers in this collection were book-deprived as children (as I was) and were certainly not encouraged to read. Conclusively, all of the essay writers were attracted to books early in life, some in spite of deprivation, in spite of a lack of encouragement and in spite of, sometimes, the lack of means to get books.  In other words, with all the indications to encourage avid readership absent, a love of books and reading still broke through.

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Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon

“A writer’s all, Alice, is not taken up by the real world. There is something left over: enough for them to build these alternative, finite realities.”

Fay Weldon’s book Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen takes the epistolary form from the author to her niece, Alice. I knew with the glorious combo of Jane Austen and Fay Weldon, two authors (and women) I admire, I couldn’t go wrong. And I was correct; this is delightful, humorous read, and yes while it’s about Jane Austen, the book is about a lot more than that. Weldon gives us her take on what it means to be a writer, what is means to be a reader, as well as sundry tips to Alice, poor girl, who seems, seen through this one-sided correspondence, to be a bit overwhelmed by … life. And who better to set this young woman straight than her Aunt Fay?

letters to alice

The 16 letters from Aunt Fay (inspired by letters written by Austen to her niece) appear to have started with 18-year-old Alice having a crisis. She’s at university and finds Jane Austen “boring, petty and irrelevant.” Not only does Fay Weldon urge Alice to continue reading, separating entertainment from enlightenment, but argues for the importance of reading literature as perhaps the one thing that can save in us in this life. And thus begins a marvellous description of The City of Invention:

Those who founded it, who built it, house by house, are the novelists, the writers, the poets. And it is to this city that the readers come, to admire, to learn, to marvel and explore. 

Let us look around the city: become acquainted with it, make it our eternal, our immortal home. Looming over everything, of course, heart of the City, is the great Castle Shakespeare. You see it whichever way you look. It rears its head into the clouds, reaching into the celestial sky, dominating everything around. It’s a rather uneven building, frankly. Some complain it’s shoddy, and carelessly constructed in parts, others grumble that Shakespeare never built it anyway, and a few say the whole thing ought to be pulled down to make way for the newer and more relevant, and this prime building site released for younger talent: but the Castle keeps standing through the centuries, and build as others may they can never achieve the same grandeur. 

Fay Weldon argues that “books can be dangerous,” and there’s the example of Alice’s mother who suffered “an overdose of Georgette Heyer” which led to her marriage to Alice’s father. There’s friction between Fay, her sister and brother-in-law, and disapproval of Aunt Fay’s relationship with Alice seeps through the pages. Over the course of the letters, we see slivers of this disapproval as well as extremely witty glimpses of Alice’s life as she converts her love affair with a married professor into writing a book.

Who reads Arnold Bennett now, or Sinclair Lewis? But perhaps soon, with any luck, they’ll be rediscovered. ‘How interesting,’ people will say, pushing open the creaking doors. ‘How remarkable! Don’t you feel the atmosphere here? So familiar, so true: the amazing masquerading as the ordinary? Why haven’t we been here for so long?’ And Bennett, Lewis, or whoever, will be rediscovered, and the houses of his imagination be renovated, restored, and hinges oiled so that doors open easily, and the builder, the writer, takes his rightful place again in the great alternative hierarchy. 

Using Jane Austen as an example, the author also discusses the importance of audience, and argues that while “the life and personality of writers” are not “particularly pertinent to their work,” that writers cannot be separated from “the times” in which they live. Of course, Jane Austen is a wonderful example of that argument. Some of the letters contain some fascinating information about marriage and birth rates during Austen’s lifetime, and just the few succinct statistics really hammer home societal expectations that Austen faced.

The letters also discuss the modern writer’s life as compared to that of Austen. Whereas a modern, published writer may attend book readings and be prepared to “have your own view on everything” it wasn’t so for Austen:

Jane Austen and her contemporaries, of course, did none of this. They saved their public and their private energies for writing. They were not sent in to bat by their publishers in the interest of increased sales, nor did they feel obliged to present themselves upon public platforms as living vindication of their right to make up stories which others are expected to read.

This book of letters is typical Fay Weldon fare: lots of energy, lots of opinions (and some of those opinions are most definitely and refreshingly not PC), and bucketloads of wit. This is a delightful read for fans of Austen, fans of Weldon or those who are considering writing, which is, as Weldon argues “not a profession, it is an activity, an essential amateur occupation. It is what you do when you are not living.”

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Is It All In Your Head?: True Stories of Imaginary Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan, M.D.

It is not necessarily the greatest suffering that receives the greatest consideration and sympathy. Illness is not scored in that way. Deadly disease obviously scores higher than others. After that there is an unofficial ranking system for illness in which psychiatric disorders are the out-and-out losers. Psychiatric disorders manifesting as physical disease are at the very bottom of that pile. They’re the charlatans of illness. 

In Is It All In Your Head? True Stories of Imaginary Illness, M.D. Suzanne O’Sullivan, whose specialties are neurology and clinical neuropathy, offers a casebook of patients who presented with powerful physical symptoms and yet in time various illness and diseases were systematically ruled out. This left these ill, debilitated people, technically speaking, or at least in the eyes of the doctors who treated them, with nothing wrong, no diagnoses.

Up to one-third of people seen in an average general neurology clinic have neurological symptoms that cannot be explained; in these people an emotional cause is often suspected. It is very difficult for a patient to be given the news that their physical illness may have a psychological cause. It is a difficult diagnosis to understand, let alone accept. And doctors can be reluctant to offer it up, partly for fear of angering their patients but also for fear of what they might have missed. Patients often find themselves trapped in a zone between worlds of medicine and psychiatry.

The book’s introduction builds a pathway to the case histories here, and I particularly loved the way the author pointed out that “modern society likes the idea that we can think ourselves better,” and while accepting that a “positive mental attitude” is invaluable, Suzanne O’Sullivan argues that “society has not fully woken up to the frequency with which people do the opposite–unconsciously think themselves ill.” The lead-in intro paves the way with commonly acknowledged physical symptoms caused by emotions or stress, and from this common point of acceptance, the author takes into her patient casebook.

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As for the case histories, there’s a range: Pauline, a 27-year-old woman with an extensive medical history, whose been ill since age 15. A general feeling of being “unwell” morphed into burning pain when passing urine. Then followed years of, how can I say this, being bounced around the medical community, being given vague diagnoses and even an unnecessary appendectomy. Finally after losing the use of her legs, Pauline ended up in a wheelchair. If you think this sounds bad, well just keep reading Pauline’s case; it’s truly appalling. I’m not going to blame the doctors here because if a person keeps complaining about pain & various other symptoms, the doctors are going to keep looking for causes (that’s their job,) and that, at the very least, led to even more complications for Pauline who ended up being kicked out of the hospital only to suffer seizures right before her release.

Wheelchair-bound Matthew is convinced that he has Multiple Sclerosis ( he can’t feel anything in his lower body, yet “despite the lifelessness of his legs the reflexes reacted as they should”) ; Shahina‘s problems began when someone accidentally steps on her hand. Yvonne becomes blind after a few drops of glass cleaning solution accidentally land in her eyes.  The treatment given her by the junior doctors and medical students is appalling, (“there’ll be no Oscars for that performance.”) Alice, I found perhaps the most interesting of the case histories, since her story started with breast cancer and from that moment on, the experience tapped into Alice’s subconscious mind. Camilla spent years with unacknowledged grief which manifested itself in other ways.

The most disturbing, controversial chapter concerns Rachel, who suffers from Chronic Fatigue symptom/ME and ends up in a locked psychiatric unit. Rachel seems to be the other end of the spectrum–someone who does indeed have something physically/clinically wrong with her even though Dr O’Sullivan argues that “psychological factors and behavioral issues, if they are not the entire cause, at the very least contribute in a significant way to prolonging the disability that occurs in chronic fatigue syndrome. Do I know that for sure? No, nobody does: but I am influenced by the lack of evidence for an organic disease. ME/CFS sufferers do not usually have any objective physical findings to explain their fatigue. They have been likened to those who had multiple sclerosis before that disease was properly understood.”  Fatigue (CFS) is a problem as it tends to gather up the label of malingering and that is so unfair. And on the subject of Rachel, just because a patient makes a big demonstration of being unable to do something doesn’t necessarily mean a thing. We all bring our characters to our illnesses and our diseases. Some of us suck it up and some of us don’t.

The chapters go back and forth from the case history under examination to other cases and also the history of various medical practices. This can be distracting, even though I can understand why the author took this approach. Some of the stories were tied up too neatly with a bow, but I suppose that is how the doctor’s casebook ends when the patient walks through (or wheels out of) the door for the last time and lands on someone else’s patient list. Ultimately this was an interesting read–even though I didn’t agree with the author about every issue.

In a matter of semantics, I had a bit of a problem with the book’s byline: True stories of Imaginary Illness as it implies, at least to this reader, that the patients in these pages ‘imagined’ their illnesses as in fabricated. But the whole point of the book is that these patients suffered very real physical symptoms as a result of psychological distress. They weren’t imagining anything.

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Sam Giancana: The Rise and Fall of a Chicago Mobster by Susan McNicoll

“His propensity for immense cruelty had begun to show itself.”

Running at just under 100 pages, Susan McNicoll’s book, Sam Giancana: The Rise and Fall of a Chicago Mobster is a brief overview of a criminal career. Giancana, with his iconic appearance (see the book’s cover) is a significant figure in the history of organized crime, and like many other figures in the underworld, he started off in poverty, with humble beginnings. Sam’s  (Salvatore) father was a Sicilian peddler who left behind his pregnant bride to emigrate to America. Arriving in 1905 at age 24, Antonio Giancana moved to a  Chicago slum. An unsavoury picture emerges of Little Italy with crowded conditions, inadequate plumbing, rampant disease, and dead animals in the streets.

Antonio, working as an independent street peddler, managed to save enough money to send for his wife, and the family moved to slightly better living conditions.  Momo Salvatore, or Sam, was born in 1908, but in 1910, Sam’s mother died from a miscarriage. Sam’s father remarried, and Sam’s childhood, brief and violent, sounds miserable. The author argues that perhaps these frequent beatings led to “a defiance few adults knew how to control.” Sam ended up in a reformatory school for boys but escaped, and at age 11 was living, homeless, on the streets of Chicago until he joined a gang of boys who specialised in stealing “shorts” slang for unattended cars. Sam’s skill at “whipping” (“taking corners at high speed”) developed into skills as a getaway driver. This band of young criminals eventually became known as the 42 Gang.

By the age of 13, he was dubbed “Mooney” because of his unpredictability and crazy, out-of-control behaviour, alluding to people who supposedly go crazy to the time of the full moon. 

This information about Sam’s formative years sets the stage for what’s to come–a life of violent crime, murder and racketeering.

sam-giancana

As always with mob bios, we enter a murky world, and there’s always a degree of speculation about just who did what….In other words, what can actually be proved? The book delves into the muddy connections between Joseph Kennedy and Sam Giancana, and mob hits contracted by the CIA on Fidel Castro. The information about Sam’s relationships with Sinatra, the Kennedys, election rigging, and Marilyn Monroe is fascinating (see The Empty Glass). There’s a lot here I’d like to know more about, FBI agent William Roemer, “Sam’s true antagonist,” for example. But the book’s length aims at an overview more than an in-depth exploration of Sam Giancana’s life with the result that while the reader, at the conclusion of the book, may know what Sam Giancana did, just what made Sam tick, eludes the narrative. There are many quotes included from Sam Giancana’s daughter, Antoinette’s biography, Mafia Princess, so that’s probably a good source for additional reading.

One complaint. The swear words are abbreviated. I’m sure there was a reason for this but given the subject matter, it’s odd, and feels as though there’s a censor at work. Here’s an example.

If I was gonna get f-ed, at least it shoulda felt good.

On a final note, at one point, the book mentions that a hit was ordered on Big Jim Colosimo by Johnny Torrio, and while I’m not arguing that Torrio wasn’t responsible, I’m not sure that that’s ever been proved solidly.

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The Mistresses of Cliveden: Natalie Livingstone

Cliveden, once the home of noblemen, is now a five-star hotel. It’s only five miles from Windsor Castle, but Cliveden, a huge spectacular house, in spite of its size and grandeur, somehow exudes illicit intimacy. Perhaps it’s the Fountain of Love statue or perhaps it’s the reputation of the Spring Cottage added in the early nineteenth century and rented by Stephen Ward. I first read about Cliveden in connection to the Profumo Affair, for it was at Cliveden that John Profumo met a naked Christine Keeler frolicking in the pool.

the mistresses of cliveden

But the Profumo Affair is not Cliveden’s only claim to fame. In the 17h century, Cliveden was originally two lodges on 160 acres when it was purchased by the notorious rake, George Villiers, the second Duke of Buckingham who then built Cliveden as a “monument to his scandalous affair” with his married mistress Anna Maria, Countess of Shrewsbury. Their very public affair led to a duel between Buckingham and Shrewsbury which resulted in Shrewsbury’s death, and eventually a penitent Countess of Shrewsbury gave up Buckingham and reconciled with her son after many years of estrangement.

It’s the history of Buckingham and the Countess of Shrewsbury that launches this non-fiction book, and sets the tone for the idea that Cliveden is a very special place–initially designed as a splendid, shameless love nest for the married-to-other-people couple who flaunted their love affair and damned the consequences. The fact that with the death of Shrewsbury, Buckingham and the Countess of Shrewsbury got what they wanted–only to discover that it came at too high a price, also places a sort of mark upon Cliveden. Not a stain, not a blemish, but a reputation….

During its dawn in the 1660s as much as its twilight in the 1960s, Cliveden was an emblem of elite misbehavior and intrigue.

This reputation which includes a huge degree of notoriety continues with the stories of the other women who inhabited Cliveden throughout the centuries in The Mistresses of Cliveden: Three Centuries of Power, Scandal, and Intrigue in an English Stately Home by Natalie Livingstone.  Other mistresses of Cliveden include: Elizabeth Villiers, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland, and Nancy Astor. Adding to the sense of scandal which seems to hang like a cloud over Cliveden’s history, Elizabeth Villiers was mistress to William III, a rather lucrative job, as it turns out.

Author Natalie Livingstone clearly loves her subject providing minute details about the building of Cliveden. For some readers who are familiar with British history, some of the information will be already well-known. The section of the Duke of Buckingham, for example, goes into the English Civil war and Buckingham’s privileged relationship to Charles II. While it’s necessary to include this information in a where-does-a story-begin-and-end sort of way, some of it will be a repeat for readers at all familiar with the period. However, there’s masses of information here about daily life including the stringent 18th century mourning requirements that necessitated the covering of any shining surface.  While the book’s title emphasizes The Mistresses of Cliveden, this is essentially the history of a house–originally designed as an ostentatious love nest (the word ‘nest’ seems ironic in this case,) and the history of this house is set within the larger context of the shifting history of England.

Cliveden had been reduced to a charred ruin. Following the fire, Mary lived alone, a tragic figure, residing in the dilapidated wing that had escaped the flames. The remains of the house, along with the lone inhabitant, became a source of morbid fascination to the public.  Her fallen situation and the ruins in which she lived fitted well with the late 18th-century trend for Gothic sites. In the latter part of the century, under the influence of writers such as Horace Walpole and William Sotheby, ‘picturesque’ and ‘melancholy’ settings began to attract artists, writers, and as the fashion for the Gothic took hold, crowds of tourists.

The house, soaked in scandal, rebuilt in the nineteenth century following a catastrophic fire, morphs with the times and with each new owner until it became a huge unsustainable white elephant that could be put to best use as a hotel. For its owners however, the house started as a temple to a licentious  man’s mistress, and ended as a symbol of monumental indiscretion.

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