Not waving, but running

When you consider when this book was written, in what circumstances and a little about the writer, Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, it will seem astonishingly prescient. The fact is that this is a revised edition, translated from the German, the first German edition that has been published.

A little background: UAB was born to Jewish parents in Berlin in 1915. His father was a decorated veteran of World War One. One other thing that should be noted, is that Boschwitz and his sister were brought up as Christians, their father having converted long before their birth, or his marriage to a Christian woman. He left Germany in 1935 with his family and they lived for a time in Oslo, then Ulrich transferred to Paris, where he wrote the first draft of the novel, while studying at the Sorbonne. He arrived, with his mother, in England in 1939, was interned in the Isle of Man as an “enemy alien” and eventually transferred with other “enemy aliens”, as well as German and Italian prisoners of war to Australia. The conditions were appalling, and not greatly improved on arrival. Eventually, encouraged to join the fight against Germany, 351 of the said “enemy aliens” were on their way back to Europe when their transport ship was torpedoed, and all of them drowned.

So much for the potted biography. In the novel, Otto Silberman is a wealthy business man engaged in metal salvage, mostly of ships. His partner, Becker, has been until Kristallnacht (9th November, 1938) the General Manager but sensing the way things are going Silberman has sold part of the business, liquidating his assets in the process.

He returns to his home, where he is hoping to do the same with his apartment, as he owns the whole block. But Theo Findler has other ideas, and in a process that becomes more and more acrimonious, reduces his offer to a paltry sum. Two important telephone calls interrupt this negotiation; one from his son, Eduard, in Paris, one from his sister. Elfriede, his wife, is talking to Findler when the Gestapo arrive at the front door. Elfriede is a Christian. Findler persuades Otto to leave by the back door, he will deal with the Germans.

From then on, throughout the whole of the rest of the novel, Otto is on the move. He becomes a passenger on one train after another, from Berlin to Aachen, back to Berlin, on to Hamburg and Dortmund, back to Berlin. Filled with suspicion he follows Becker and “collects” his money, which he is carrying with him in a briefcase for the rest of the time.

He meets, on one train or another, a variety of German people with varying views; Silberman himself has Aryan good looks, he is tall, blond and elegant; at first he travels in First Class, then in Second and once he ventures into the Third Class carriages; he meets other nervous travellers, German army officers and other people who clearly dislike and distrust the Jews, he meets people that he knows, who have a more typical appearance assigned to the Jewish race and he learns about himself as well as about others, even about the kindness of strangers.

There are so many books, fiction and non fiction about this dark period in German history. This one was written at a moment when the world could have done more and didn’t. The stain remains on many nations, even if mostly upon Germany itself. If Ulrich Boschwitz could see what was happening, why did no one else react? Of course, many did, leaving Germany before 1936, and many like Otto Silberman left it too late.

The sense of claustrophobia, the sweat-inducing nervousness, the moments of sheer panic resonate throughout this novel, so that the times when someone is kind or thoughtful stand out in stark contrast. But this most interesting novel has at its very centre, a person who is not really very likeable: Otto is a bit self satisfied, especially of his non-Jewish looks and it takes a long time for him to come to some much needed self realisation, and when he does, it comes with a death wish.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, crime, Environment, Modern History, Politics, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized

Booker Longlist 2021

The Booker Longlist was published yesterday. In no particular order, I have read and posted on Kazuo Ishiguro Klara and the Sun, [March 28] Sunjeev Sahota China Room, [May 27] Maggie Shipstead Great Circle, [June 14] Frances Spufford Light Perpetual [March 5].

Of the above, you will find that I found Sunjeev Sahota’s new novel very enjoyable, if painful and better that his previous novel which I also enjoyed; I did not enjoy, except for the very first section, Light Perpetual, and did not think it came near to Frances Spufford’s first novel On Golden Hill, that said I am not surprised to find it on this list, though obviously I would not have selected it; I felt that Klara and the Sun was in some ways a response to Kazuo Ishiguro’s earlier dystopian novel Never Let Me Go, it was quite different and in no way a sequel, but seemed to me to be a further exploration of a society that disenfranchised some people and enhanced others, which is similar in theme though not context, of the previous one; and, finally, I quite simply adored, recommended and raved about Great Circle.

The ones to come, in alphabetical order are:

Anuk Arudpragasam A Passage North
Rachel CuskSecond Place
Damon GalgutThe Promise
Nathan HarrisThe Sweetness of Water
Karen JenningsAn Island
Mary LawsonA Town Called Solace
Patrick LockwoodNo One Is Talking About This
Nadifa MohamedThe Fortune Men
Richard PowersBewilderment

Rachel Kusk and Damon Galgut have both been nominated for the Booker at least once before; Anuk Arudpragasam in one of the American authors in the list, this is his second novel; The Sweetness of Water is a debut novel, from another American author, Nathan Harris; Karen Jennings is a prolific and prizewinning author from South Africa, she lives in Brazil at present; Mary Lawson is Canadian and is also a prolific writer, publishing memoirs, poetry and novels; Patrick Lockwood is another American, described as “formidably gifted”; Nadifa Mohamed is from Somalia and is a already prize winning author, this is her fourth book.

So fewer debut novels (no bad thing), only five women which is amazing when you think how many women have published novels this year and an interesting breakdown of nationalities, or not too many Americans which is another way of looking at it.

I overlooked Richard PowersBewilderment, I ran out of the page in my notebook and then forgot to turn it over when I was writing. This is his second appearance on the Booker listings, he was nominated for The Overstory in 2018, I would guess that this is also concerned with the environment.

Not one of these is even on my TBR, so there will be a slight delay before I add anything to this subject. But it will follow, be assured.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, The Booker Prize 2021, Uncategorized

Ebbs and flows

In the days before automation, the life of a lighthouse keeper was an honourable and demanding profession. Honourable, because it was a service to the community of men on the sea and demanding, because it entailed eight months on a building, sometimes far from land with no amenities that were not brought from the mainland, and then only when the weather and tide permitted. The Maiden was just such a lighthouse.

The novel, The Lamplighters, is set on a fictional lighthouse off the South West coast of Britain, it is one of the towers on a rocky outcrop, there is no land around it, so no chickens or sheep, nowhere to grow even a small crop. Emma Stonex has deliberately moved the lighthouse away from any real site; this is so that the narrative does not affect the lives of any living relatives who might feel able to identify with the tale as it is told.

Anyone can identify with the emotional thrust of this narrative; anyone can identify with the women left on shore for long periods; anyone can identify with the tensions that might arise between three men, stuck in the middle of nowhere looking after a lamp that must be guarded, cleaned, nurtured and lit every night at the going down of the sun, and extinguished at dawn.

It meant that the Principal Keeper needed to be the sort of man that was trusted, respected and reliable. Arthur Black was just such a man; his Assistant Keeper, Bill Walker and his Supernumerary Assistant Keeper, Vince Bourne were probably nice enough, but neither of them had an entirely clean bill of health. Which is why there was much speculation and anxiety when all three disappeared, leaving the lighthouse unmanned with the door firmly locked and barred upon the inside.

Twenty years on, a man comes asking questions.

This is a compelling story, thrillingly put together as it switches from the present day (1992) and interviews with the women: Arthur’s wife Helen, Bill’s wife Jenny and Vince’s girlfriend, Michelle and the writer who is seeking answers to the twenty-year-old puzzle. It goes back twenty years, so that we become familiar with the thoughts and feelings of the men on the lighthouse, the relationships with their women and their own histories. When the two are meshed together, we find a complex and poignant story of love, loss, grief and that most damaging and corrosive emotion: suspicion.

This is part mystery, part ghost story, part tribute. Ms Stonex has researched and interviewed many of the remaining people who knew such a life, she has read contemporary accounts and weather reports, and looked at court proceedings where accidents or accidental deaths have occurred. But what drew her to tell this story in the first place was a short report that listed an unsolved mystery when in December 1900, three lighthouse men disappeared from a rock lighthouse on an island in the Outer Hebrides. The Lamplighters was written and inspired by their disappearance and in respectful memory of these men, while at the same time being entirely a matter of fiction.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Environment, History, Travel, Uncategorized

Revisiting childhood

From the moment I saw the title of Katherine Langrish‘s book, I knew I would have to read it. I make no secret of the fact that I was the perfect age for the Narnia stories as they were published from 1950 and almost every year for seven years thereafter; so my sister and I would be in Blackwell’s bookshop immediately after Christmas with our booktokens in our hands, and the first book in the pile would be the latest C S Lewis Narnia volume. My sister even had (and still has) a stuffed lion soft toy, called Aslan along with all but one first edition of the Narnia septet. The reason she is one short, is that I have Prince Caspian, with whom I identified strongly as soon as I read about him.

Reading From Spare Oom to War Drobe was an absolutely joy, because the author’s own nine-year-old experience so exactly mirrored ours. We completely missed all the allegorical and Christian references, the Platonic philosophy and much else, but not the more child-centric messages about hope, loss, fairness and magic.

Reading the Narnia books again, to myself as well as to grandchildren, I do shudder somewhat at some of the prejudice that C S Lewis shows. How odd it is that John Buchan is now castigated for anti-Semitism, when I have never heard anyone suggest that C S Lewis had a similar and much more obvious bias against “men with long, dirty robes, and wooden shoes turned up at the toe, and turbans on their head, and beards”. The Calormen, as described throughout the series, are villians with brown skins. Deceitful slave traders, polytheistic and in every way inferior to the native Narnians, and especially to the human children who have stumbled, through wardrobes, from train stations and through picture frames, into this magical kingdom. And as for Spike, the Ape in The Last Battle, words rather fail me.

Ms Langrish trawls through the books again, not obviously for the first or even the second time, with a needle-sharp eye for all the hidden references, lifting of plots and counterplots from other writers, thinkers and poets: Edmund Spenser, Thomas Malory and Aesop, to name but a few. So it is rather a surprise when one sees how much of The Fairie Queene was lifted almost wholesale to describe Narnia in the golden age. Then there is The Bible.

For lover’s of Narnia and all its people, this is a book for you. If you haven’t read a Narnia book, then maybe at least read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the one from whom the title of this book came. The Narnia books have their detractors, Philip Pullman and JRR Tolkein among them, and much of what they say is valid, even if I don’t agree with their opinion, nor incidentally does Katherine Langrish.

Thoughtfully and carefully written, this is a Narnia lovers’ book. One that rewards re-reading itself, and chases one back to re-reading the Narnia books again, for oneself, to re-capture some of the joys and excitements of the childish imagination that they so enraptured seventy odd years ago.

Leave a comment

Filed under Children's Literature, Uncategorized

Time and patience are the strongest of all warriors

At the end of The Cold Millions, Ryan is musing on his life and this phrase from Tolstoy comes to mind. Jess Walter has used a splinter of history to create this novel. He says, himself, that it is entirely fiction even though several of the characters are historical, with a coherent chronological context.

The novel opens in the first decade of the twentieth century, during the labour riots of America, when itinerant workers bummed their way around the country after jobs, paying crooked labour agents to find them (often) non-existent jobs; these men would turn their hands to anything: mining, logging, harvesting – seasonal work wherever they could find it.

Gig and Rye are just such men, and the book opens in Spokane where they have ended up having hitched illegally on the railway. After the mysterious shooting of a policeman, the local law enforcers (not all of them policemen) decide to clear the area, and four men are faced with a stand off at the river’s edge. A short while later, our two brothers, Gregory and Ryan, are both involved in an open air labour protest, for which they are arrested along with about five hundred other men, the other two men, important characters in the narrative, only reappear later.

The historical facts around which this novel is created deal with the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW) and the socialist movement, and Communism in early American labour disputes; Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a Communist agitator, makes a stupendously vigorous (real life) character with whom Ryan becomes momentarily involved.

The police are brutal thugs; the poor are dirt poor and the rich are living in cream. This is how it seems to Ryan as he becomes embroiled in EGF’s campaigning; one particular industrialist tries his best to silence Elizabeth, using agents and double agents and bribes, but she bests him in this novel and, to some extent, his counterparts in real life.

Mr Walter has created a world of thrilling contrasts of kindness and cruelty; of racial prejudice and police brutality; venial politicians and corrupt town councillors; it makes for an excellent brew. The epilogue, which takes us fifty years on from the beginning, gently rounds out the stories of the different characters, good and bad.

The perfect vehicle for a reader with a taste for history and a good narrative trajectory; we are swept willing into the flow of the epic struggles that marked the century, when America still had a Wild West, with pioneers and adventurers carving out lives against the majestic backdrop of forest, river and mountain.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, History, Law, Politics, Travel, Uncategorized

The randomness of the TBR

My to-be-read pile is utterly random, having bought the books (over lockdown they arrived in boxes) I unpack them and they are piled up just as they come to hand, the only division is fiction and non-fiction. So it was strangely serendipitous that I read Forecast, [posted 17/07/2021] a book about the changing weather and a writer and his wife struggling to reconcile themselves to a marriage without children, followed by two novels about loss and of not having a child.

In Everything is Beautiful, Eleanor Ray describes the life of a woman, Amy, now middle aged who has lived for eleven years believing that her boyfriend (almost but not quite fiancé) and her best friend had run away together. Her response had been to collect a box of memories, but that has accumulated to become a wardrobe of things, which spilled into piles of boxes of significant items: lighters, ashtrays, birds, mugs and newspapers and even bottles, in case she might find the clue as to where they had gone. Her life had stagnated almost to the point of danger.

The novel switches between the before it happened and the present day. Amy’s preoccupations with her things, especially her birds, is stultifying, you can feel the dust and it makes you want to sneeze. Her refusal to allow anyone past her front door, also feels visceral as you read it. Then in the before it happened passages to meet an entirely different, joyful and loving girl; the novel compels you to confront the sadness of that moment, its sudden catastrophe.

The next book on the pile, Sorrow and Bliss does the same sort of thing. At seventeen, Martha undergoes a sudden breakdown, the day before taking her A levels. Many doctors and psychiatrists later, she is convinced that she is unpredictable, and should not be a mother. This she both accepts and fears. Her first marriage ends in an annulment, it was a mistake from the moment of her engagement, but carried by its own momentum went through the whole process until it didn’t. Then Martha marries Patrick, a man that she has known for most of her life, when he appeared one family Christmas, brought home from boarding school by a cousin, because “his father forgot to book a ticket for him to return home”.

Meg Mason has absolutely nailed family life: all its love and embarrassments, its rows and plain misery, its wonders and moments of hilarity and joy. Throughout, we travel with Martha and her insane mood swings, her medications and moments of normality, until one day she sees a psychiatrist who diagnoses her as a classic _ _ sufferer. Cleverly, Ms Mason leaves the name of Martha’s condition blank, but her relief at being finally diagnosed is palpable and she is finally able to share it with her mother, imagine Martha’s shock when her mother says that it was diagnosed years before, but that she suppressed it because she couldn’t handle a daughter with a labelled mental illness like that.

Both these novels deal with aspects of disturbed personality disorders, in a sensitive and open way they explore the inner turmoil, at the same time as presenting the affect is has one those close to the sufferer, especially in Sorrow and Bliss, this is delivered in a humorous as well as a clinical way, so that you see both the terrible damage it does to everyone, as well as the way it can be deflected by a joke. Here is an example:

Afterwards, I did not think it would happen again. When it did, I went to a different doctor and collected diagnoses like I was trying for the whole set. Pills became pill combinations, devised by specialists. They talked about tweaking and adjusting dials; the phrase ‘trial and error’ was very popular. Watching me dispense such a quantity of pills and capsules into a bowl once, Ingrid, who was with me in the kitchen, making breakfast, said, ‘That looks very filling’, and asked me if I wanted milk on them.
The mixtures scared me. I hated the boxes in the bathroom cabinet and the bent, half-blistered sheets and scraps of foil in the sink, the insoluble feeling of the capsules in my throat. But I took everything I was given. I stopped if they made me feel worse or because they had made me feel better. Mostly they made me feel the same.

Sorrow and Bliss pp60-61

All three books have a sense of loss at the centre. All the authors convey this in a different way, but they give the reader a glimpse of another life, another way of living. This might be foreign or familiar, depending on the reader. What they all do though, one way or another, it to bring personal tragedy and its affect on life and the lives around such events into a sharp focus in a sympathetic and enlightening way. Whether the planet or the personal these are all books that open a window from which we can peer and perceive and learn.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, crime, Medicine, Poetry, Travel, Uncategorized

How are the mighty fallen!

This is one of those novels that picks up a detail of history and expands it into a story. Andrew Haswell Green, an elderly man, travels to his home for lunch. He has reached his own front door, and stands to catch his breath; down the street he can see his housekeeper, Mrs Bray, hurrying towards him. He hopes that she is not bearing more fish for lunch (she is). Immediately in front of him, though, is a man in a bowler hat who seems to think that they have a mutual acquaintance; in this Cornelius Williams is wrong but it does not stop him from shooting Mr Green, hence the title: The Great Mistake.

There follows, in this novel, the Inspector’s investigation into Andrew Green’s murder and a biography of the man who from a humble background in Massachusetts, climbed through serious and genuine graft and friendship, to a position of influence in New York that profoundly altered that city.

Wikipedia will tell you that Andrew Haswell Green was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1820, after a brief apprenticeship in the mercantile industry, he went to Trinidad. He stayed there a matter of a year and returned to New York to study law. Aided by his partnership with Samuel Tilden, Green began a campaign of improvements to the features and culture of the city. Starting with the design and foundation of Central Park; a scheme not without its detractors. He was also responsible for the linking of New York and Brooklyn, though the bridge was funded by a corrupt Democrat Councillor, William Tweed, who subsequently met his match in the two lawyers, Samuel and Andrew, who exposed his corruption and had him charged.

In 1869, Green was behind the creation of The American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also promoted the idea of free public schools in the city. And creation of the first State Park: the Niagara Falls Park Commission, aimed to preserve the Falls for the enjoyment of the public.

Jonathan Lee combines the investigation into the death, with a genuine desire to give a coherent narrative to the strangely insolated and lonely life of this far-seeing and public spirited man. A man whose life on the public arena hid a secret that in many ways distorted and diverted his career.

In some ways, it is slightly ironic that the memorial to John Lennon, Strawberry Fields, is more visible to the public than the more modest marble bench which was placed in honour of the park’s founder. Another man, gunned down outside his home almost exactly 77 years after Andrew Haswell Green.

Other recommendations:

Francis Spufford On Golden Hill

Leave a comment

Filed under Art, Books, crime, Culture, History, Travel, Uncategorized

Whether the weather

Whether the weather be fine,
Or whether the weather be not,
Whether the weather be cold,
Or whether the weather be hot,
We’ll weather the weather
Whatever the weather,
Whether we like it or not!

Anonymous British nursery rhyme

In his rambling, fascinating and absorbing book about the weather, Joe Shute ranges over the British Isles in all sorts of weather, at the same time including historical accounts of sudden and appalling weather and citing many literary sources of weather events both fictional and non-fictional, and the many and varied paintings, and poems about the seasons and weather, but not this one.

Michael Morpurgo says of Forecast: “this is the most urgently needed book”. As it covers metrological data about the current weather patterns and extremes, as well as contrasting and comparing it to previous once-in-a-lifetime events that are now occurring with horrible frequency; it is indeed, an insight into how climate change is altering our world, as seasonal signals blur, and we move into a more violent experience of heat and wet, and the consequences: wildfires and floods.

Reading this book at a time when Germany and the Low Countries are experiencing flood induced fatalities on a scale unknown previously, it is a most salutary piece of writing. For it is the unpalatable truth, that although we were warned as far back as the early half of the 20th century that climate alteration would come, we have persisted in using fossil fuels, concreting over more and more land, and ignoring all the signs that things are changing. As we stand, promising a reduction of our carbon emissions by 2050 would seem a bit like the boy with his finger in the dyke. How long before he gets tired?

While, obviously, this book is largely about the more catastrophic weather disasters of the last 25 years, it is also a poetic and lyrical look that those things in nature that we should cherish, notice and seek to preserve; not for nothing was this book written during the 2020 lockdown, when nearly everyone suddenly started to notice the spring, the birdsong and the weather.

This is a “must read” says Jonathan Dimbleby. I concur, it is an epic story of Britain and its climate and a warning for the future, a forecast in fact.

Leave a comment

Filed under Art, Books, Environment, Modern History, Nature Writing, Poetry, Travel, Uncategorized

More Australiana

Set in Hobart, Tasmania The Cookbook of Common Prayer is a novel about grief, or possibly yet another novel about grief. Maybe it is a 2020 thing?

What do you do when you see two members of the police force outside your front door, early in the morning? Gill, a chef and mother of three, does not want to open the door, that way they cannot deliver the message; Gabe, her husband opens the door anyway. But the news that these people bring is even more shocking than they were expecting.

Francesca Haig looks at the shock and grief experienced in a family suffering from a bereavement from the different points of view of the entire family. The parentals (as they are called), their anorexic daughter Sylvie, confined for three years in a hospital and their youngest son, Teddy.

Also involved, but not having a “voice” in the novel is Papabee, the paternal grandfather. A delightfully vague, functioning dementia eighty-year old; Sue, best friend and agent for Gill’s cookery books and Louise, the doctor principally concerned with caring for Sylvie and Rosa, the girlfriend of the eldest son, Dougie or Douglas Jordan.

Once the disaster is known, each of these characters respond in a different way and it is within these differing and complex reactions that the novel builds and builds. Gill obsessively writes recipes, full of weird ingredients and bitter herbs and spices; Gabe obsesses over the details of the postmorten; Sylvie remains silent and non-eating, and Teddy tries to puzzle out the answers to all these various situations, Papabee his facilitator and friend.

In real life, the newspapers often report the deaths and disappearances of gap year students in the Antipodes. This is a reversal. The death occurs in England in a cave accident.

This is a powerful and revealing exploration of the mechanisms we use to cope with extreme grief, Fractured and apart, how can a family recover and recalibrate after such an event? This novel has a selection of answers.

Leave a comment

Filed under Baking, Books, Cooking, Food!, Medicine, Travel, Uncategorized

Once upon a time in the West

In a magical world somewhere in the west of Britain, Cador is King, with Enica his Queen and they have three daughters: Riva, Keyne and Sinne. The land was once the province of the Roman Empire, but the Romans have gone and the tribes have abandoned their villas and towns and live in tribal holdings.

Cador has relied on his strength and attachment to the land, but this hold is weakening under the influence of a priest, Gildas, introduced by Queen Enica, who is preaching Christianity and denouncing the magic ways and beliefs of the pagans as wicked and sinful. Keyne, who has problems of her own, has escaped the hold into the forest, lost and beginning to be frightened she meets an old woman, Mori. Mori gives her a silver bangle, but Keyne is afraid of it and buries in at the foot of a yew tree.

At one time, Cador took advice from Myrdhin, but now he is regarded as merely a storyteller. But Myrdhin is much more than that, he is an enabler and through him, Keyne and her sisters begin to understand and use the powers that they have as daughters of King Cador.

But beyond the walls, the Saxons threaten them, and as their father’s power fades, into their midst comes a beautiful stranger. He will have an influence on all of them, one way and another.

Lucy Holland‘s novel hangs lightly upon a traditional ballad, The Twa Sisters, which tells the tale of what has happened between the two girls, one who has destroyed the other. The reader is drawn into the sparse lives of these ancient Britons, where famine and disaster are never far away, and war lurks on the horizon. The informed reader will recognise in the names, hints of the Arthurian England of legend and magic.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Culture, Environment, History, Religion, Uncategorized