Category Archives: Books and reading

For the joy of reading: The Librarian of Auschwitz

This is not an easy book to read.   This is hardly surprising because it is about Auschwitz.   It is about one small act of resistance against the SS which was organised by a 15-year old girl, Dita Kraus, who lived to tell the tale.   There was a library in Auschwitz.   It consisted of eight books, some of them badly damaged, that was hidden under the floorboards of the school hut.   There were also living books, people who remembered stories and told them to the children.   The books that were hidden under the floorboards were not necessarily the most useful for children – an atlas, a Russian grammar, Freud, The Good Soldier Swejk and the Count of Monte Cristo in French.   But the living books were gold dust.   They were the tales that people remembered and were able to pass on.

I can already hear your question.   What was the point?   They were all going to die.   The point was to live in the moment.   To give the children something to look forward to – a story, a book in their hands, something to do.   The point was to give them lessons, to tell them something about the world.   And it was important because some of them, if not many, were going to return to that world.

The story is told as a novel because that allows Antonio Iturbe, the author, more freedom to interpret what happened especially when no record has survived.   Even the names used are not the real ones, except where it is historically necessary.   There is no point in using different names for Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele or Elizabeth Volkenrath.   Iturbe does not make any attempt to disguise them.  

One of the characters that he does not disguise is Fredy Hirsch who ran the school in which the library, at his instruction, was hidden.   Fredy is presented as an ardent Zionist which he was.   We hear that he told the children about how important it was that they should settle in Palestine.   We do not hear of anyone arguing against him, although there were thousands of anti-Zionists in Auschwitz at any given time.   But this is a novel.   It concentrates upon the school and the library, and especially upon the experience of Dita Adler (really Dita Kraus) who was full of admiration for Fredy and upon her release from Bergen-Belsen she found her way to Israel where she settled.

There are issues about how Zionism was perceived in the Jewish community of this time which are dealt with in “For Two Thousand Years”, a contemporary novel, by Sebastian Mihail.   This is not raised in this book, which could be perceived as a weakness.   But the book reflects the experience of Dita Adler, and that is what is important.

We should not be distracted from the horror of the Holocaust because we know about what has happened since.   Obviously, it does matter.   But it is not the subject of this book.   This book is about the years of unimaginable horror committed by humans against other humans during the Second World War.   We have failed to make sure that it does not happen again because it has – in Cambodia, in Rwanda, at Srebenica in what was Yugoslavia.   It has not happened on the industrial scale that took place at Auschwitz, and for that we can be grateful.

As I said, this is a difficult book to read.   But if it makes you think about the world in which we live, the barbarity of which we are capable and the need to be vigilant against racism and the attempts to justify racism, then it has succeeded in its purpose.

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For the joy of reading: Milkman

This book is about how a whole community can become paranoid.   The city is not named.   Only one of the characters is named and that is only after she is dead and cannot come to any further harm.   Every single character is given a description like “Third brother-in-law” so that only those who are familiar with the people can know who is being talked about.   This is a community at war.   The divide is religious, political, historical and drenched in blood.   There is an occupying power.   There are two states, contesting for the loyalty of the inhabitants.   Although officially there is no war, there is a low-intensity guerrilla war being waged on the streets.   Nothing is said, but the reader can be in no doubt that the country is Northern Ireland and that the city is Belfast.

Paranoia is one of the main themes of the book.   The heroine is being sexually harassed by the Milkman, a leading para-military and assumes, probably correctly, that everyone close to her will be under threat if she does not submit.   The most under threat is the narrator’s maybe-boyfriend, who may be murdered simply to get him out of the way.   The Milkman does not have to do this himself.   All he has to do is indicate to the Renouncers that maybe-boyfriend is an informer, and that will do the trick.   Maybe-boyfriend has also made the mistake of acquiring an iconic car part which was made “over the water”.   It is so obvious that this book is about Northern Ireland.

This paranoia, this avoiding of names, this use of soubriquets is not something that is familiar to a British audience.   It is not something that we have had to deal with.   We have not lived with a low-intensity war taking place on our door steps day in, day out, year after year.   That war sometimes spilled over onto our streets, but not very often.   We have not had to worry about who could overhear our conversations since the “careless talk costs lives” campaign in the Second World War.   That is the subtext of this book throughout.

This is a story about how ordinary people learn to adapt and survive in the most difficult of circumstances.   It is a story about prejudice and conflict.   It is a story about a traumatised community.   It is an insight into what can be at stake when polarised communities will not consider the option for peace and reconciliation.   It shows how easy it is to take the wrong turning and follow the path to hell.

For the joy of reading: breakfast at Tiffany’s

What can I possibly say about “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”?   It has all been said before, and if you have not been persuaded to read the book that is your problem.   Indeed, people of my generation think that they know the story because there are two things indelibly printed in their minds.

The first is Audrey Hepburn playing Holly Golightly.   The role could have been written for her.   The physical description of Holly is Audrey Hepburn to a T.   Holly is fey, elegant and strikingly good-looking.   I cannot think of anyone who could have matched Capote’s description of his heroine better.   The second is Andy Williams crooning “Moon River” with Henry Mancini’s orchestra.   As a theme song, it is so perfect that no other theme song is now imaginable.   The movie dominates our understanding of the story.   There is a whole generation, however, that has not seen the film, and have not read the book.   It is for them that this review is intended.

Capote is an excellent writer, and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is a very short introduction to his fiction.   It is the story of a young women who captures the imagination of the men around her.   She possibly lacks judgement, but she certainly has a sense of adventure.   Like La Dame aux Camelias, she is a courtesan, selling her favours for money and occasionally giving them free of charge.   [That is not the case with the narrator, who is the Capote figure, and the reason why is avoided.]   She is not a prostitute, although some reviewers have alleged that.   She does not sell her body on the streets.   She is what we used to call a “free spirit”.   Holly Golightly, as played by Audrey Hepburn, became a role model for some women in my generation – having adventures, taking risks, making love (not having sex).   As I have said, a free spirit.   Through her, Truman Capote had an impact on a whole generation.   So, for young people who want to understand their grandparents, this is one of the books to read.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not the only story in this collection, which also includes “House of Flowers”, “A Diamond Guitar” and “A Christmas Memory”.   The first is about Ottilie, a young girl from Santo Domingo, working in a brothel in Haiti who meets the love of her life and returns with him to the mountains she came from, and to a life of domesticity.   It is quirky, charming and thoroughly delightful.   The second is about a young man, Tico Feo, who is sent to prison.   He has a guitar, decorated with glass diamonds.    The third is about Buddy’s memory of his much older cousin waking at the beginning of winter, to start making the preparations for Christmas, with the exclamation of “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather”.

So, I end with a simple question: How could you not love these stories?

For the joy of reading: the western wind

Thomas Newman is dead, drowned in the river.   The Rural Dean has been informed because he is the richest man in the small Somerset village of Oakham.   The question for the Rural Dean is a simple one.   Did he fall?   Did he jump?   Or was he pushed?   To find the answer, he has to rely on John Reve, the local priest.   This is not present-day England.   It is 1491, and Henry VII has only been on the throne for 6 years, following the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth.   The local Bishop is in prison for supporting a Yorkist pretender.   The monks at nearby Bruton are greedily hoping to acquire the village of Oakham for their monastery.   So, when the richest man in the village dies in mysterious circumstances, the Dean decides to offer a general pardon to anyone who comes to confession before Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten fast.   What the Dean does not know is that the villagers have many dark secrets.

It is important to remember that the book is set in 1491.   The geography pf the place is important to the story.   The Somerset Levels have not been drained.   The river is turbulent.   There are strong currents and oxbows.   The river is a dangerous place.   There is no bridge.   There have been two attempts to build one but, in both cases, it has been swept away.   John Reve has taken the lead on this and Thomas Newman has been generous with his money to cover the costs.   But despite all their efforts, there is no bridge.   This means that the village is cut off by the river from the surrounding country, and that it is effectively an island.   The book is full of a sense of isolation.   The trials and tribulations of the villagers seem to be something different from the rest of the world.  

John Reve is an outsider, having come to the village with his sister, Annie, from a village in Hampshire, near Southampton.   Thomas Newman has been on a pilgrimage to Rome and has returned from Italy with some new ideas.   Sarah has also been on a pilgrimage and caught some kind of wasting disease before she returned to Oakham.   You cannot help but feel that the rest of the world is some kind of threat.   You certainly get a feel for Somerset at the end of the C15th.   What else can you ask from an historical novel?

The story develops over four days, but is told backwards from Shrove Tuesday to the preceding Saturday.  This gives an idea of the mystery that the Dean has to deal with.  It may be a strange chronology, but it helps the reader to understand the true horror and enormity of what has happened.   And you are still left with asking my starting question.   Did he fall? Did he jump?  Or was he pushed?

For the Joy of reading: Women of the Dunes

The lives of three women – Ulla, Ellen and Libby – interlock on a remote Scottish headland, north of Glasgow, over a period of more than 1,000 years.

Ulla is the legendary figure, fleeing from Eric, brutal husband, with Harald, his wounded brother and her lover.   They arrive at what became Ullaness, where they meet Odrhan, a hermit monk.   This is dated as c800AD, the ninth century, the height of the Viking raids.   Harald dies, and the pregnant Ulla is abandoned by Harald’s men.   She dies in childbirth, leaving her son, Padraig, to be brought up by Odrhan.   This is the legend around which the story is built.   It is worth pointing out now that this is not a real legend.   Ullaness does not exist.   However, the story is believable.   It is shrouded in the mists of Celtic folklore.   I do not know enough about Gaelic folklore to be specific, but there are hints of Y Mabinogion and Deirdre of the Sorrows.

1,000 years later, Ellen, a servant girl, feels a link to Ulla as she walks the headland where that is a ruined chapel that legend says was the home of Odrhan.   Ellen is also involved with two brothers, Mungo and Alick, and meets the local minister, Oliver Drummond.   Their story is the heart of this book, and it reminded me very much of the way that Alan Garner tells the story of Blodeuedd in “The Owl Service”.   That is all that I am going to say, as I do not want to spoil your pleasure in reading this story.

The final woman is Libby, a Canadian archaeologist of Scots descent, who has heard the stories of Ullaness from her grandmother and who has inherited a gold Celtic cross that links her to Ulla and Ellen.   Again, there are two brothers – Sir Hector Sturrock and his brother Rodri.   Sir Hector’s wife, Laila used to be Rodri’s girlfriend and, like Ulla, she is from Norway.

You will have gathered by now that there is a continuing theme of two brothers clashing over a woman.   It appears that history is repeating itself until there can be some kind of resolution, which is exactly the theme of Alan Garner’s “The Owl Service”.   I am not going to tell you if that resolution comes.   That is because I do not know.   It is possible that Rodri’s two sons, Duncan and Charlie, will clash over a woman.   We cannot know because that takes us beyond the end of the story.

There is one thing though of which I am certain.   Ulla’s son, Padraig is not St. Patrick, who died in 431AD, which is some 400n years before Ulla was supposed to arrive in Ullaness.   This is one of the characters suggesting ahistorical nonsense.  

This is a story that offers a view of Celtic mysticism.   It gives you an insight into the mindscape of the West of Scotland.   It is a dramatic and absorbing read.

For the joy of reading: A Single Source

Those who have read my review of “A Dying Breed” will be aware that I have known Peter Hanington for something like 30 years, since the time when we were ant-apartheid campaigners together in London in the late 1980s.   I mention this again so that you can make your own decision about whether or not that has affected my judgement.   Peter went on to work for BBC Radio, including the Today Programme. The World Tonight and Newshour.   So, he is well-acquainted with the world in which he sets his books.

“A Single Source” picks up on the careers of William Carver and his producer, Patrick.   They are in Cairo at the time of the Arab Spring, and they, of course, are at the heart of the reporting action.   I am not sure that any of Peter Hanington’s colleagues at the BBC will want to be thought of as the role model for William Carver.   He is a bit of a slob, even though he is a slob with principles which is what makes him dangerous as a journalist.   When he is on to a story, he is like a terrier who will not let go.   The problem is that he does not care about the consequences and, quite often, he is not the one who has to take the flak.   That is often done by the people around him, whether it is his boss dealing with civil servants, or others nearer to the action, dealing with the secret police.

Patrick is, in my view, a far more likeable character.   Like Carver, he takes risks to get the story.   But the person he puts at risk is himself.   He is prepared to take his recording equipment, secretly, into dangerous places and puts himself on the line.   Unlike Carver, he does not put others near the action, or involved in it, at risk from the secret police.   Let us not forget that the Egyptian secret police under Mubarak were quite capable of torture and murder.  

The others near the action are Nawal, a blogger from Tahrir Square and her friend Zahra who helps Nawal by putting her blogs into good English.   Both of them are very intelligent young women, putting their lives at risk to expose what is happening in Cairo during the Arab Spring.   The key issue is proving that the police are using British-manufactured tear gas against the demonstrators in Tahrir Square.   Nawal has the evidence.   Zahra, who works at the Seti Hotel, where Carver is staying, helps her friend to contact Carver and to show him what she has discovered.   That is the motor for the story.   Carver digs to produce evidence confirming which British company has been involved in the illegal export of tear gas to the Mubarak government.   That is when it becomes dangerous.  

As the story hinges on this development, I will now turn to the events in London.   The company that is involved in this is called Quadrel Engineering & Defence, and its Chief Executive is named Bellquist.   Some of you are going to think that he is a villain from a Victorian melodrama.   You will have to trust me on this.   Peter Hanington and I met enough of these kinds of people, when we gate-crashed the AGMs of companies trading with apartheid.   Bellquist is an accurate enough description of a certain kind of entitlement which these people exude.   They are, of course, brought up to it or they acquire that particular patina of, shall we say, ruthlessness.   Quadrel, naturally, has connections with the Ministry of Defence and exerts all the pressure it can to stop Carver from telling his story.   That is the second strand of the tale.

The story, however, begins with Gabriel, an Eritrean businessman, buying a VIP passage for his two grandsons, Gebre and Solomon, from people traffickers because there is no hope for them having a good life in their own country.   The two young men set out on a journey from hell from Asmara in Eritrea, across Ethiopia and Sudan to Omdurman and then on, across the Sahara, to Libya, where they and those with them are finally set adrift in boats across the Mediterranean.   It is not until the end of the book that the link between the stories of Gebre and Solomon, on the one hand, and of Nawal and Zahra on the other becomes clear.   You will not get any spoilers from me.

One disappointment is that there is no hint of the role of Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service, in all this.   I accept, however, that would have been a complexity too far and that there is enough meat in this story to keep any reader hooked.   It took me less than a day to read through the 364 pages of this story.   This was because I did not go to sleep until I had read the last page.

Peter Hanington knows how to tell a story.   He keeps you transfixed.   This is because his stories are ones that demand to be told.

For the Joy of Reading: The Freedom Artist

A book by Ben Okri is worth waiting for.   This one is no exception.   It is a meditation upon the role of mythology in our culture.   But Okri is not the kind of author who would do this as an academic exercise.   He creates a world, very much like ours, and builds its own mythology.   He starts from the basis that the story of the Garden of Eden is an adaptation of a much earlier mythology of imprisonment, to make it more acceptable, more pleasant.   This mythology of imprisonment holds that we are trapped in our bodies, in the world, in the universe and that we cannot escape even by death for that is just another form of entrapment.   Like Prometheus, we are chained and can only escape from our torment by the intervention of another over whom we have no control.   We can long for escape, we can pray for escape, but we can do nothing to bring about the intervention of the person who breaks our chains and sets us free.   That is the thesis of this story.

Ben Okri very cleverly invents his own mythology.   We do not know if we are in this world, or one that is very like it.   We do not know if we are in the past, the present or the future.   We know that we are in a world where strange things are happening.   It seems likely that this is a world of the future affected by climate change, but we have no proof of that.   We know that Mirababa is sent on a strange quest, a magical quest by his dying grandfather, with the command to “Go in” whatever that means.   We know that Mirababa is going through a sort of Eleusinian Mystery as an initiate.   But we do not know what he is expected to find, nor why it is important.

In Karnak’s case we know exactly who he is looking for.   He is searching for Amalanta, his beloved, who has mysteriously disappeared, possibly arrested by the secret police of the Hierarchy, who are the government.   Amalanta can best be described as enigmatic, which becomes more and more clear as Karnak remembers the strange questions that she kept asking him.   As Karnak wanders, he discovers the mystery and strangeness of the place in which he lives.   This is a world where the Hierarchy have deemed that books are unnecessary and dangerous.   Karnak of course finds a library run by the daughter of a philosopher who had gone into hiding.    He begins to piece together what is happening in his world.   Then, the library disappears.

It is hardly surprising to find that the writer of “The Famished Road” creates a magical realist world, a world that creates mythologies because people need them and a world that has been created by these very mythologies.   He asks some very pertinent questions about these mythologies.   Is the Garden of Eden a place to which we should aspire to return?   Or is it a prison from which we have escaped?   What do our mythologies actually mean?   What are they trying to tell us?   How do we find the truth in ourselves?