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How to be a WomanAfter I finished reading Moranthology, I had all sorts of questions about Caitlin Moran.  There are just enough details about her life in that collection of articles  – about her childhood, her husband, her teen years as a wunderkind journalist – to make me want to know more.  Her memoir, How To Be a Woman, happily answers all of those questions and proves that she can be just as entertaining a memoirist as she is a columnist.

The memoir is framed around various experiences in Moran’s life that have helped to define (for her) what it means to be a woman.  She discusses with her usual humour her first period, her overweight youth, her first encounter with sexism in the workplace (which she handles with impressive bravado), her marriage, her experiences with childbirth and abortion, and her opinions on those hot button issues that allow outraged responses from a good proportion of readers (topics like the porn industry, modern standards towards body hair, how female celebrities are treated in the media, etc).  Moran is never short on opinions and, whether you agree with her or not, she is always entertaining in her arguments.

Admittedly, I only agreed with her opinions about 50% of the time but this is not meant to be a general guide to others on how to be a woman: this is a book about Moran and how she, over the course of more than twenty years, tried to figure out what it meant for her.  Does every woman’s path to becoming a woman include the contemplation of what to call their genitals?  God, I hope not.  But that doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate other lessons Moran learned along the way.

For me, the chapters on “Why You Should Have Children”, “Why You Shouldn’t Have Children” and “Abortion” were the most interesting.  They felt more sincere and less jokey than other sections of the book and I found Moran’s account of her abortion very powerful, both in her description of the physical process and in her analysis of how uncertain society is around women (especially ones who are already mothers) who do not weep with despair when they choose to terminate a pregnancy.  There was certainly no weeping for Moran:

I can honestly say that my abortion was one of the least difficult decisions of my life.  I’m not being flippant when I say it took me longer to decide what worktops to have in the kitchen than whether I was prepared to spend the rest of my life being responsible for a further human being, because I knew that to do it again – to commit my life to another person – might very possibly stretch my abilities, and conception of who I am, and who I want to be, and what I want and need to do – to breaking point.  The idea that I might not – in an earlier era, or a different country – have a choice in the matter, seems both emotionally and physically barbaric.   

The most attractive thing about this book is how self-aware Moran is and how good natured she is about making fun of her younger self.  There is nothing so insufferable as a writer who cannot recognize how insufferable they are (or, hopefully, were).  Moran handles some weighty subjects in a humourous and thoughtful way, making this book a pleasure to read.

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All the Books of my LifeWhen I finished reading All the Books of My Life by Sheila Kaye-Smith, I was almost giddy with delight.  A memoir focused on Kaye-Smith’s reading throughout her life, I was enchanted by it to the point that when I finished I told Simon (who read it last year and adored it) that “if I wrote the review right now it would be so gushingly, adoringly positive that only people who have read and loved the book already will be able to make sense of my ramblings.”  So, for your benefit dear readers, I have waited.  Let us see if I am any more coherent now.

Kaye-Smith uses the books in her life as markers, guiding the reader through her childhood (full of Victorian children’s novels where the heroes and heroines all seemed to die), her teen years (when she was warned off reading the classics – a topic that prompted a very interesting discussion here), her early adulthood (when she finally felt mature enough to handle all the novels she had forbidden herself when younger) and so on and so on, tracking her evolution as a member of the literary community and, eventually, her conversion to Roman Catholicism (I must admit, she lost me briefly at this point, her theological readings being far too dense for my understanding).  All those stages and, most importantly, all those books contributed to the woman she became, the one who wrote this book:

I do not want to exaggerate the effects of reading on character, but the influence of a book is probably as strong as any to be gained from most human contacts.  After all, a book is the voice of a fellow creature, calling through the print, perhaps from somewhere close at hand among our own interests and occupations, perhaps from across the world, perhaps from across the ages.  It is one of the many forms taken by experience, and through reading it we may find ourselves transported into an entirely new field of perception.  Even if we do not choose to remain there we probably shall not leave it as if we had never entered it.

Kaye-Smith had already published a conventional memoir by the time she sat down to write this and, because of that, seems to have felt little need to go into specifics about her personal relationships with non-writers or even much detail about her career as a writer (only a few of her books are mentioned by name).  Instead, by tracking the evolution of her tastes, her different motivations and influences over the years, you get a wonderful sense of her personality.  I particularly enjoyed hearing about her priggishness as a teenager, when “…like the schoolmistress my conscience would cry ‘Stop!’ when anything suggested deviation from strict propriety occurred or seemed likely to occur in a book.”  Her parents had little patience for such affectation and did their best to discourage it.  I was also interested to see her frustrated reminder to readers about the career ambitions of Edwardian girls, something that the 1950s cult of domesticity (the book was published in 1956) was doing its best to ignore:

It is generally supposed that in the early years of this century girls left school only to lead a vapid social life at home until somebody came along and married them; but nearly all my contemporaries left to take up some sort of profession – to be nurses, teachers, missionaries, and even doctors.  I left to become a writer, to the disappointment of my father, who would have liked me to go to Cambridge…

Not every page of the book is about Kaye-Smith’s reading but the real fun does come from hearing her thoughts on authors and books that are still read today.  Simon, for instance, adored her musings on Ivy Compton-Burnett.  I loved everything she had to say about Jane Austen (though not as much as I loved Speaking of Jane Austen, a book of essays by her and G.B. Stern that I finished on Saturday and cannot wait to discuss with you all) but probably had even more fun reading her thoughts on the books she didn’t like.  As delicious as it is to hear her enumerate all the reasons why Emma is a perfect book, it is much more fun to hear her complain about Little Women:

My failure ever to read Little Women must be put down to more humbling causes.  I found the March family much too good for me.  I liked children to be naughty – to ‘get into scrapes’ as we called it then – so that I need not inevitably feel inferior to those I read about.  The unselfishness of the Marches in giving their breakfast to feed the poor, and sacrificing their Christmas presents to help the Union Army was more than I could bear.  They had performed actions of which I was incapable and I hated them for it.  I never got beyond Jo’s sacrifice of her hair.

For all the recognizable titles she mentions, there are just as many obscure ones by authors long forgotten.  There is an entire chapter, “Sad Pageant of Forgotten Writers”, devoted to them but the second-rate reading material of her youth belongs there too.  Kaye-Smith is very sensible about it all, being not particularly sentimental about childhood favourites and recognizing that the bulk of the reading material from her Victorian and Edwardian childhood was poorly written and not worth preserving.

I am not sure I’ll ever want to read Kaye-Smith’s novels – like Simon, I am afraid they are just the kind of rural novels that Stella Gibbons had such fun skewering in Cold Comfort Farm, though I do already have Joanna Godden sitting on my bookshelf – but I loved reading this.  It is such a fun, appealing format for a memoir and Kaye-Smith carries it off beautifully; the balance between her life and her reading is just perfect and the writing is beautiful and humourous.  I thought it would be a difficult book to top…but then I read Speaking of Jane Austen (aka Talking of Jane Austen) and that was even better.  Thanks to Sheila Kaye-Smith, my reading for the year is off to a very good start!

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daughter of empireDaughter of Empire: Life as a Mountbatten by Pamela Hicks is a light memoir, the kind that skims the surface without worrying itself with too much introspection, but that is what makes it so enjoyable.  Focused on the first thirty years of her life, from her birth in 1929 to her 1960 marriage to David Hicks, Lady Pamela offers an entrancing glimpse into a world of long forgotten glamour and into her endlessly fascinating family.

The second daughter of Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten and Edwina Ashley, Lady Pamela had an active, wandering childhood: born in Barcelona, she spent some of her early childhood in Malta until her father became too uncomfortable with Italy’s growing aggression and, though he remained stationed there, sent the girls to continental Europe where they met up with their mother.  From there, they eventually returned to England – but not for long.  Lady Pamela and her older sister spent the first few years of the war in America, their mother and father having been very concerned over the prospect of a German invasion and what that would have meant for their daughters with Jewish blood (Edwina Ashley’s grandfather was Jewish).

As a child, Lady Pamela adored her father and relished their time together and their close relationship.  Her mother, on the other hand, was a distant figure in her childhood, both emotionally and physically: during Lady Pamela’s early years, her mother seems to have spent a large amount of time travelling the world in the company of one of her lovers.  For Lady Pamela, her parent’s open marriage is a simple fact of life.  When her father first discover that his wife had taken a lover, “he was devastated but eventually, using their reserves of deep mutual affection, my parents managed to negotiate a way through this crisis and found a modus vivendi.”  They had already been married for nine years by the time Pamela was born and had by then figured out how to make their marriage work, thanks, Lady Pamela notes, to “my father’s complete lack of jealousy and total desire for my mother’s happiness.”  Though Lady Pamela’s affections are wholly with her father, she does recognize and admire her mother’s achievements, noting that she was “a woman who always drove herself too hard and felt intellectually isolated.”

The most interesting portion of the book, for me, were the chapters dealing with Lady Pamela’s late teens and early twenties, which cover both her time in India while her father was Viceroy (and later Governor General) and her experiences as lady-in-waiting to Princess (and then Queen) Elizabeth.  The India chapters are particularly good.  The Mountbattens arrived in 1947 with a unique mission: “unlike any other incoming viceregal family, we were not there to uphold the laws and traditions of the Empire but to dismantle them.”  It was a role that all three of them (her elder sister Patricia was already married by then) took very seriously though seventeen-year old Pamela was far from prepared for the duties that fell to her, something she realised while being briefed by the outgoing Viceroy’s twenty-something daughter:

I could do little but listen as Felicity brought me all her files and began: “The Viceroy’s House compound houses five hundred and fifty-five domestic servants, drivers, gardeners, electricians and grooms together with their families, so the compound holds around five thousand in total and we have a school and you will have to be the chief visitor for the school.  And there is a clinic…”  Furthermore, I was to succeed Felicity as the president of the Lady Noyce School for the Deaf and Dumb, which taught about seventy children aged between six and eighteen, who, without the protection of the school, would be unwanted and helpless.  It transpired that Felicity also worked part time at a canteen for the Allied forced.  “But,” she said, “that’s all fairly straightforward so I’m sure you can work that one out for yourself.”  I could only smile politely…Fresh out of school, not yet eighteen, with no training or skills beyond typing and speed-writing, I felt somewhat out of my depth.  And she hadn’t even mentioned all the student leaders who were about to be released from prison whom my father wanted me to contact.

Lady Pamela is particularly strong when describing the politics and violence surrounding independence and partition as well as the friendships that made their time there so happy, despite the shattering amount of work that fell to her parents and the friends they lost in the violence.  Her memories of Nehru in particular are lovely; especially her recognition of the close relationship between him and her mother (though she believes their affair remained platonic) and what it meant for Edwina to find a soul mate at that particular point in her life, when she was exhausting herself travelling all over the country to provide relief in areas hardest hit by the violence.

The writing is simple but it perfectly suits the straightforward way in which Lady Pamela presents her life story.  She does not attempt to analyse the characters of those around her – there are no tortured attempts to understand her mother or, while in Kenya in 1952, to give insight into Queen Elizabeth’s feelings on hearing that her father had died – she merely reports on her life and, to me, that is more than enough.  The book is light, entertaining and reveals an author who is both kind and humourous.  I greatly enjoyed this and can only hope that it is followed by another volume about her life as a Hicks.

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A.A. Milne His Life by Ann ThwaiteAs soon as I started reading A.A. Milne’s works this year, it was inevitable that I was going to pick up A.A. Milne: His Life by Ann Thwaite.  As much as I have loved getting to know Milne through his own writings (especially his autobiography), there is nothing like a really good, well-researched biography to compliment and enrich my knowledge of my newest favourite author.

For those (which I imagine encompasses everyone other than Simon) unfamiliar with Milne’s life, a brief and rather poorly-written outline: he was born in 1882 in London, the youngest of three boys.  He was never close with his eldest brother Barry (and they grew even more distant as adults) but his brother Ken, who was only a year older than him, was his partner in everything.  When Milne started writing, it was with Ken.  After Cambridge (where Milne edited and wrote for Granta), he moved to London and started writing professional, eventually finding a home as an editor and writer at Punch.  After the war, he started writing plays at an extraordinary rate, a number of which were very successful both in England and America.  He wrote a few novels but it was his children’s verses and the Winnie-the-Pooh stories that made him famous.  He had a conflicted relationship with this fame (though nowhere near as conflicted as his son, immortalized as Christopher Robin, had).  He was a life-long pacifist (and wrote an extraordinarily powerful book about his beliefs in 1934) who passionately supported the fight against Hitler.  He had no outrageous scandals – the worst was probably his denunciation of P.G. Wodehouse after Wodehouse’s wartime broadcasts from Berlin – and had a generally quiet, though not precisely peaceful  – there were always tensions with other family members, first his brother and then his son -, life.  He died in 1956.

The chapters on Milne’s early years (before he won a place at Westminster School) draw mostly on the information in his autobiography, so I didn’t find that section particularly enlightening.  Where Thwaite really started adding value was in describing Milne’s time at Cambridge.  In his autobiography, Milne claims that “What distinguishes Cambridge from Oxford, broadly speaking, is that nobody who has been to Cambridge feels impelled to write about it.”  A fine sentiment, to be sure, but not a useful one.  Thwaite fills in all the details that Milne left out in his account, telling us about his friends and fellow students, showing how they all fit together in the literary world they would soon shape.  While he does very little namedropping in his own writings, he knew some truly fascinating people.  As a young writer in London, he was in contact with, among others, J.M. Barrie, H.G. Wells, P.G. Wodehouse, Denis Mackail, and R.C. Lehmann (who, in our corner of the blogging world, is probably best known as the father of the novelist Rosamond Lehmann).

As much as I admired Milne’s reticence to discuss his relationships in detail in his autobiography and understood his reluctance to examine the more difficult periods in his life, I am thankful that Thwaite did address these topics.  As wonderful as Milne’s memoir is, it is his edited version of his life and excludes quite a lot of the details that the public really had no business knowing, certainly not during his lifetime.  Thwaite is able to fill in these gaps that Milne very consciously left.  She is of particular value in looking at Milne’s life during the 1930s, arguably the most difficult decade for him in the wake of the extraordinary success of his children’s books – which, as someone who considered himself first and foremost a playwright, was difficult to deal with – and the deaths of first his beloved brother Ken and then his father:

 All the family had gone; all the links with his childhood were severed.  And somehow his own life, too, seemed to be slipping away.  He was fifty.  All his adult life, he had been looking forward to the next book, the next play, full of optimism and enthusiasm.  It had always seemed that he was still making his reputation.  But now he had to accept that he had made it, and it was not the one that he had wanted.

It was during this time that he and his wife (Daphne) appear to have drifted apart somewhat.  Marriages –both fictional and non – fascinate me so I am always interested to observe how different ones function and evolve.  There is very little solid evidence about the personal conduct of both Milne and Daphne but both appear to have strayed – she with an American (she travelled there frequently without Milne) and he with an English actress.  Thwaite isn’t able to draw on any concrete proof but friends all said that yes, these affairs happened.  Still, it does not appear that their marriage was in danger and they grew closer as the years went on.  The entire portrait presented here of Daphne is interesting, perhaps for the sheer lack of detail.  Thwaite suggests that she was more sophisticated and outgoing than Milne (which would not have been difficult), more interested in appearances and less interested in the topics that concerned him most.  For a man who had gone into marriage with the most romantic ideas about perfect companionship, it must have been difficult to realise how different their priorities and interests could be:

Milne did not have, as Daphne observed, ‘the disagreeable temperament so usually associated with famous men, and, in fact, has a most even and genial disposition.  He makes life very interesting and amusing for us.  He doesn’t save up his best thoughts for strangers.’  Under his quiet exterior, Milne had not just a genial disposition but a romantic and passionate one.

He had the highest and most romantic expectations of marriage and this would in itself cause problems.  He had never accepted the view that was becoming common (and which one of his characters had expresses in Ariadne) that ‘love and marriage are two different things.’

The two best things about this book – what makes it more than just a compilation of Milne’s autobiography and his various autobiographical sketches – are the inclusion of many of his letters and quite a few reviews from his critics.  The reviews are exciting simply because I have been reading so many of his plays and articles this year and am delighted to compare my opinions to those of reviewers working at the height of Milne’s fame:

…George Jean Nathan decided, damningly, that Milne was the best exemplar of those British playwrights who suffer ‘from their heavy effort to be insistently light.’  He said that going to a Milne play was like going to a dinner party ‘where at all the exceptionally dull guests have endeavoured to be assiduously amusing.’  This would seem to us, today, a reasonable description of The Dover Road anyway; a reading of it earned from the contemporary playwright, Michael Frayn, the epithet ‘terrible’.

Those who remember how much I loved The Dover Road will not be surprised to hear how angry I became on hearing it dismissed this way.  On the other hand, I’ve never liked Michael Frayn or enjoyed his writing so feel perfecting comfortable in dismissing his opinion altogether.  But I do think that George Jean Nathan has a point: Milne wrote a huge number of plays, mostly comedies, and a number do feel laboured.  Some are outstanding but most are a bit pedestrian.

While the reviews give us insight into what the rest of the world thought of Milne, his letters show us what he thought of the rest of the world.  Here, for once, we see Milne the man, not Milne the professional writer.   There are passionate, intelligent letters to newspapers about political and philosophical issues that roused him, with some especially powerful ones from the 1930s, when the lifelong pacifist watched with horror as the League of Nations failed and the world began to ready itself for war.  But the best letters are the ones to his favourite brother and best friend, Ken, and, after Ken’s early death, to Ken’s family.  Not only do these letters show how close and affectionate these relationships were, they also give a very detailed picture of Milne’s daily life, complete with his reactions to world events and personal milestones.

I am so happy that I read a really good sampling of Milne’s work before I read this. It meant I was able to enjoy reading about the context in which his works were written, to delight in identifying quotes or episodes Thwaite pulled from writings I was familiar with, and to greet The Rabbits, that wonderfully exuberant group of friends, as old acquaintances when they were mentioned.   I could appreciate the compliment from The Times when they said“when there is nothing whatever to say, no one knows better than Mr Milne how to say it” and Thwaite’s statement that:

It is not easy to quote from Milne at his funniest.  That ‘sparkling irrelevancy’ R.C. Lehmann admired depends on a cumulative effect, on a sequence of remarks and on high spirits and on a juggling with words that never seems to flag.

Having written so many reviews of his plays and sketches this year, I know how true that is!  I could never capture in my own poor words the brilliancy of Milne at his best and to quote him in small bits never does justice to the sustained humour he was so good at.

Mostly I am glad I had read so many of Milne’s books beforehand because it meant I knew him and Ann Thwaite did not get the chance to shape my opinion of him.  Enrich it, yes, but not shape it.  I occasionally felt like Thwaite had some contempt for what Milne viewed as his ‘real’ work and I suppose writing at the end of the 1980s there could hardly have been a time where the plays, novels, and pieces for Punch could have been more unfashionable.  She is only explicit in her praise for the children’s books and, indeed, the amount of information about those books and their success far exceeds even my keen interest .  Regardless of Thwaite’s own feelings about his writing (and they do not intrude, not really), I became even more fond of Milne while reading this.  Thwaite is an extraordinarily good biographer (and her skill here was recognized: this was the Whitbread Biography of the Year in 1990) and her account of Milne the man and the author is brilliantly researched, gracefully written, and compulsively readable.  I wouldn’t recommend it to those only familiar with Milne from his children’s writings but it is the perfect book to read after you’ve sampled his plays and novels and are longing to get to know the man who should be remembered for so much more than just Winnie-the-Pooh.

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I remember reading Max Braithwaite’s autobiographical trilogy of novels years ago, chronicling his (or the fictional Max’s) youth and young adulthood in Saskatchewan from the 1910s to the 1930s, and finding the books amusing but also surprisingly sombre.  Braithwaite is a humorous, colloquial writer but he is not afraid to address serious topics.  In doing so, he gives us an intriguing glimpse into the complexities of life on the prairies between the wars.

Never Sleep Three in a BedNever Sleep Three in a Bed was published in 1969 and is the gentlest of the three books in terms of the subject matter it addresses.  Covering the first eighteen years of his life, this book sees Max through infancy and childhood, his lust-filled teen years, and his emergence after graduation into a world reeling after the stock market crash of 1929.

Braithwaite is very open in talking about sex, though there’s not much to talk about given the years this book covers.  We do hear a great deal about lust and curiosity though and it is pleasingly frank.  There is nothing salacious here; just an honest record of what it feels like to be a hormone-riddled teenager in an era when adults refused to talk to children about sex.  When his father discovers Max looking at the Young Husband’s Guide to Married Sex (pilfered from his parents’ dresser), he replaces it with The Solitary Vice, a book that gave the thirteen-year old nightmares:

The writer of The Solitary Vice had the most graphic style of any writer I’ve since encountered.  He described the terrors of masturbation as they’ve never been described before.  Compared to it, leprosy, rabies, bubonic plague, syphilis even were no more than slight aggravations.  I can’t think of one catastrophe that wouldn’t befall the practitioner of this awful crime.  He would go blind, insane, hairy-palmed, impotent, until he cried out in his misery, ‘Oh who will deliver me from the body of this living death?’

I sat there on the edge of that bed, and the sweat poured off me in buckets.  I have never been so terrified of anything in my life.  Of all the good things my father did for me – and he did plenty – he came close to wiping them all out by placing that awful book in my hands.

Braithwaite maintains a cheerful matter-of-fact tone throughout the book, addressing the difficulties he faced without turning misfortunes into sob-stories.  His family was poor, constantly moving because they were behind on their rent.  In a family with eight children, there was not always a lot to go around (including beds, hence the torture of being forced to share one with two of his brothers).  With unusual anger he remembers how the teachers in Prince Albert sent his elder brother Hub back two grades after discovering that his spelling – just his spelling – was not at grade level.  An otherwise intelligent and hard-working boy, this soured Hub against the school system for life and Braithwaite takes great pleasure in ending the story by saying how successful his brother became as soon as he left school and began working.  None of this made the Braithwaite family unusual for their time and place.  In a province full of immigrants, in a time of large families and scarce jobs, they were hardly the only ones who struggled though, to a great extent, it appears that the children did not realise how difficult things were until they were much older.

Braithwaite is very proud of having grown up in Saskatchewan but does not try to ignore the problems communities faced as they tried to incorporate citizens from so many different countries, all of whom brought their own prejudices.  Catholic and Protestant, Ukrainian and French-Canadian, Chinese and Italian, there were religious and ethnic conflicts aplenty.  These are not cosy village neighbours who might spread rumours but would still be the first to help in a crisis.  No.  This is a place where the “Chink” who runs the diner is habitually scapegoated or where your angry neighbour might shoot your dog and never say a word about it.

The Night We Stole the Mountie's CarThe Night We Stole the Mountie’s Car, published in 1971, picks up four years after Never Sleep Three in a Bed (years chronicled in Why Shoot the Teacher?, which I did not read this time around), after Max has survived his first years as a teacher and acquired his wife, Aileen.   As the book opens, Max is trying to secure a teaching job in the town of Wannego.  He gets it, beating out more than fifty other applicants through a combination of determination (rather than mailing his application, he drove to Wannego to accost the school board), connections (it turned out his father knew the head of the board), and canny politics (playing the board members off against each other, farmers versus their natural enemy: the bank manager).  It is one of many reminders about the scarcity of jobs during the Depression and the lengths the unemployed were willing to go to in order to obtain a post.

The rest of the book looks at Max and Aileen’s experiences during their years in Wannego.  There are some discussions about the school and Max’s teaching but mostly Braithwaite focuses on the townspeople.  When he does mention teaching, it is usually to point out how chaotic matters were.  He had the privilege of working under an excellent principal but, even so, there was little to like about a teacher’s life:

Today, when we have better education that we’ve ever had, everybody is a critic.  Housewives, businessmen, garbage collectors, professors, sports writers – they can all tell you what’s wrong with education.  It costs too much; it doesn’t cost enough.  It’s too easy on the kids; they have too much homework.  Not enough physical education; too much emphasis on sports.  Not enough discipline; too much conformity.  Education is a hot topic in the news media.  On a slack news day every editor and television producer knows he can get somebody to make a pronouncement on education.  It beats pollution by a mile, or even the population explosion.

In the 1930’s when everything was wrong with education nobody talked about it.  Teachers were poorly trained, discontented, underpaid; school boards were made up for the most part of uneducated, sometimes even illiterate, farmers and businessmen.  But nobody cared.  When given a chance, speakers absentmindedly mouthed platitudes about how our education system was “second to none” and about how we were “building this rugged land on firm foundations.”

Only the teachers knew what was wrong and worried about it.  But the teachers were so low in the social and economic pecking order that their voices were rarely heeded.

What time Max doesn’t spend teaching is spent writing.  These years in Wannego are spent learning and refining his craft and receiving many, many rejection notices.  Though they must have been painful lessons to learn, Braithwaite is unflinchingly honest in his criticisms of his flaws as a young writer.  Having read so many plays this year and come to appreciate the skill it takes to write a successful one, I particularly appreciated his panning of his first attempt at writing one (which was staged by the town’s dramatic society):

We had our first practice in our living room, during which we just read through the play.  And I discovered a most horrible truth.  My lines were terrible.  Speeches that sounded so lively and scintillating to me as I wrote them came out trite, dull and ridiculous.  Not because the players were inept – that too – but because the lines were very bad.

Where this book really excels – and I think it is the best of Braithwaite’s three autobiographical books – is in its portraits of ordinary Saskatchewanites: their pastimes, their prejudices, and their pleasures.  There are humourous anecdotes about softball tournaments, rivalries in the rustic tennis club, and a town play (written, directed, and acted in by Max) but there are even more bluntly-told stories of the other realities of Depression-era life on the prairies: couples terrified of having another baby they can ill-afford; a pretty teenage girl whose single mother wants her to go live with one of her own male “friends” in the city; an alcoholic who tries to keep his drinking secret from a town that knows everything; and so, so many bright young men, forced to leave school early and work (when and wherever they can)  to help support their parents and siblings.  For this last group at least, there would eventually come a time when they could prove themselves:

Make no mistake about it, many of my generation of Saskatchewanites were saved by the war.  Boys I’d known at school who were brilliant and never had a chance to prove it joined the army or the air force or the navy and gained rank the way a healthy steer gains weight.  Soon they were lieutenants, flying officers, colonels.  They had a chance to prove their worth.  The war set them on a ladder of success and they never stopped climbing.

My grandfather was in this group, albeit in Ontario not Saskatchewan.  Pulled from school when he was fourteen and loaned out to neighbouring farms where he laboured in exchange for goods or to work off debts, it wasn’t until the war that he had a chance to prove his intelligence or initiative.  Like so many young men, he gained confidence there and though he stayed on the farm for a few years after the war ended he eventually ended up working as a radio and eventually television host, as well as working at both the federal and provincial levels of government.  He never stopped regretting that his schooling ended at Grade Nine but he, like many of his contemporaries, did not let that hold him back.

In both books, it is hard not to draw parallels between some of Braithwaite’s commentary on the Depression and the recession-riddled world of today.  When the Depression begins, he discusses how pervasive stock speculation had become, to the extent that “even the school-teachers, traditionally the most timid members of society, were getting into the act, and if that doesn’t indicate that something was wrong I don’t know what would.”  He also, like so many young people now, though his father and “his generation had let us down, got us into the horrible mess of the depression through neglect, stupidity, wrong values and unwillingness to change.”  Plus ça change…

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After the week I had, I needed a comforting sort of weekend.  Thankfully, I rather specialise in cosy, cheering activities and so I have had a busy but calming couple of days with my books and my various adventures in the kitchen.

salt sugar smokeAs soon as I finished work on Friday, I pulled out Salt Sugar Smoke by Diana Henry, flipped to the recipe for pink grapefruit marmalade, and got to work.  My grapefruit were fresh and free (having been picked three days before off the tree outside our front door in Palm Desert) so of course I had to try my hand at this.  It was only my second time making marmalade (having made orange marmalade in February) so I hovered anxiously over the stove the entire time but the end result is beautiful and very tasty.  The only problem was that other members of my family kept wandering off with the book while I was needing to refer to it, eagerly looking through the recipes and taking note of the ones they most want to try.  I am thrilled that it interested them but their interest could have been better timed!

Catherine the Great by Robert K. MassieAlso on Friday, I finished reading Robert K. Massie’s wonderful biography of Catherine the Great.  I had started it earlier in the week and sped through the first half but stalled out for a day or two after the news about the firings broke at work.  Really though, it was the perfect book to return to after that, being absolutely in no way related to anything going on in my life.

What I knew of Catherine before reading this book was minimal: our focus in school had been on her relationships with Enlightenment philosophers and other enlightened despots and how she applied Enlightenment ideas to Russia.  Massie does an excellent job of describing this and of putting her policies into perspective versus what the rest of Europe was doing at the same time.  But what really fascinated me was his portrait of her life before she seized the throne, of her life from the age of fourteen (when she came to Russia from Prussia) to the age of thirty-three, when she became empress in a coup d’etat that deposed her husband, Peter III.   Her careful and astute handling of herself and her relationships over this period was extraordinary, reflecting “years of ambition beginning in childhood; the years of waiting, of hungering for power, of always knowing that she was superior in intellect, education, knowledge, and willpower to everyone around her.”  The entire book is masterfully written, making excellent use of Catherine’s memoirs and her letters, which reveal both her intelligence and humour, and skillfully entwining the personal and political, but it is the woman herself who makes it such an interesting story.

P1060193Then, for something completely different, I read What Did It Mean? by Angela Thirkell on Saturday.  While it is not one of her better books (it make actually be the worst of the ones I have read so far), it was exactly the book I needed.  Published in 1954, it focuses on the celebration preparations in Northbridge for the Queen’s June 1953 coronation.   Lydia Merton has been elected chairman of the Coronation Committee and, being Lydia, does an extremely competent job.  She even manages to get the famous Jessica Dean and Aubrey Clover to agree to perform a short play as part of the festivities.

While the number of characters starts out at a relatively manageable size it explodes by the end of the book to include practically everyone living in Northbridge, as well as anyone who can be feasibly dragged in from further afield.  It is nice to see old friends again, especially the delightful Mrs Turner whose not-quite-romance with Mr Downing was my favourite part of Northbridge Rectory, but there are far too many of them.

There are two things that are responsible for my enjoyment of this somewhat uneven book: the blossoming of shy Ludo, Lord Mellings (Lord and Lady Pomfret’s eldest son) and the constant praising of Lydia Merton.  I am perfectly happy as long as people keep saying lovely things about Lydia and a rather ridiculous amount of the book is spent doing just that.

Now, bereft of Lydia, I am spending today baking vanilla crescents (vanilkové rohlíčky in Czech or Vanillekipferl in German), making chicken soup, and reading the new Slightly Foxed quarterly, which arrived on Friday.  A very nice end to a not particularly nice week!

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vilma-reading-a-book

What a wonderful reading weekend I have had – and Sunday still awaits!  But I knew it was going to be good when two of the books I have been most excited to read this fall arrived at my library late Thursday.  It was as if the universe knew I was taking Friday as a half day off work and so was in need of wonderful reading material to fill the empty hours (or, those hours that weren’t going to filled by my optometrist appointment – after all, I hadn’t known the books were coming and I couldn’t let a half day go to waste).  And Saturday obliged with torrential rains which (I learned the hard way) are not meant to be enjoyed out of doors but instead wrapped up in a blanket on the sofa, book in hand.

My Berlin KitchenI started with My Berlin Kitchen, a memoir with recipes (like Elizabeth Bard’s Lunch in Paris or Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life), by Luisa Weiss, who blogs as The Wednesday Chef.  Right after my optometrist appointment, I walked over to one of the nearby restaurants, ordered my lunch, and settled down with the book.  I was not waiting until I got home, no sir.  The book, needless to say, got far more attention than my food.

Weiss was born in West Berlin to an Italian mother and an American father.  After her parents divorced when she was three, she spent her early childhood living with her father in Boston and then moved back to Berlin when she was ten to be with her mother.  As an adult, she worked in publishing in New York but it was Berlin she longed for, though it took her a while to realise that and longer still to find her way back.  A product of so many different cultures and with so many different homes to turn to, food was a way for Weiss deal with her homesickness – whichever home that might be.

The most relatable portion of the book, for me, was the section dealing with her confusion during her late twenties as she tried to figure out what it was that was missing from her life, despite the excellent job in her chosen field and committed long-term boyfriend.  Weiss describes herself as “a responsible person, possibly even a square.  I always eat my vegetables.  I never have that third glass of wine (in fact, rarely even that second one).  I get palpitations if I’m not punctual.  And I tell my parents everything.  Sometimes I think this stodgy obedience is the honorary German in me, the stuff that rubbed off on me by osmosis.”  I know how hard it is for that kind of person (being one myself) to admit that all the things you had planned for yourself – and achieved – aren’t actually what you need.  I am always filled with admiration when, having figured out what they actually do want and need, people go out and get it.  (I am still at the figuring out stage myself.)  And that is exactly what Weiss did; she moved back to Berlin, got a book deal on the strength of her success as a blogger so she could do the work she loved, and rekindled a romance with her first love.  Interspersed through this story are her wonderful, incredibly tempting recipes.

Weiss admits that German food does not have the romance of French or Italian cuisine – especially given the hoards of food books or mid-life memoirs screaming in praise of those two countries – and though she spends plenty of time cooking Italian, American and various other types of food, she does do her best to make the case for German food.  For me, this is preaching to the choir.  I adore eating in Germany.  I used to travel to Europe in the spring after university let out and I would always arrive in Germany in time for Spargelzeit, when white asparagus would be in every restaurant, prepared every way you could imagine.  Now, when I visit in the late summer I enjoy pflaumenkuchen (which is less exciting since we make it at home all summer) or  feast on mushrooms when I drop by in the autumn.  Delicious.  So it is no surprise that Weiss’ descriptions of her German meals were my favourites, especially this passage about breakfast offerings:

As for the Germans, well, their breakfasts are legendary.  Groaning boards piled high with thin slices of cheese, hams – boiled, smoked, and cured, sliced cucumber, boiled eggs, tomato wedges, coarse and smooth liverwurst, butter and Quark, plum butter and red currant jelly, all meant to adore slices of dark, grainy Vollkornbrot or freshly backed crusty rolls split in half.

And, at this time of year especially, we must acknowledge that Germany knows better than any country how to celebrate a proper Christmas.  But this is not casual cookie baking; this is a serious production:

I made chewy little squares of gingerbread studded with candied citrus and snow-white anise-flavoured domed cookies that disappeared with a quick crunch.  Meringue-topped hazelnut stars that crackled lightly under out teeth, nuggets of almond paste adorned with peeled almonds and baked until glazed and toothsome and snappy, spiced butter cookies shaped into narrow rectangles and decorated with a scatter of slivered almonds.  Not to mention rich, winey fruit bread, damp, dark, and mysterious, and dense, buttery Stollen coated in a thick layer of powdered sugar.

I spent all day Saturday fighting the urge to go to the store and start buying the ingredients for some of her Christmas recipes – I have enough Czech Christmas cookies that I need to start on without adding these!

I have been busily copy recipes out of the book in anticipation of returning it to the library – Flammkuchen!  Meatballs in Tomato-Chipotle Sauce!  Those Christmas cookies that I say I shouldn’t make but am still ridiculously tempted by! – but that is only a temporary solution.  I need to own this book.

English DecorationAnother book I need to own, that other much-anticipated book that came into the library with My Berlin Kitchen, is English Decoration by Ben Pentreath, which I curled up with on Saturday afternoon.  If you are not already following Pentreath’s Inspiration blog, you should be.  I have severely culled the number of design-focused blogs that I follow but his I will never drop.

English Decoration is a celebration of English (and Scottish and Welsh) rooms where, in Pentreath’s words, “the personality of the owner is [...] woven into every fibre.”  These are not grand estates nor have they been “done” by hired decorators.  They are homes, usually of Pentreath’s friends, that have been decorated over time and, most importantly, have been thoroughly lived in.  There are newspaper clippings and notes pinned up on walls and scattered across dressers; kettles, toasters and sugar bowls have been left on kitchen counters; and magazines are piled high on the floor underneath side tables.  These rooms have clutter of the most functional, attractive sort and they all express their owners’ preferences and personalities.

The book is divided into chapters by types of room: foyers and halls, sitting rooms, kitchens and dining rooms, bedrooms, etc.  It is an image-heavy book (there is nothing more disappointing than a book about interiors that is text-heavy) but the real joy for me came from reading the descriptions that accompany each photo, seeing everything through Pentreath’s eyes.  It is easy for me to look at a photo and say “I like that” or “I hate that” but I don’t learn much doing that and I do so want to learn.  Going through the book more slowly, taking the time to actually read it, helps me to appreciate even more the rooms I like and to consider more closely the rooms I am not immediately drawn to and the reasons why that is.  Happily, this book is full of rooms I loved and the photos by Jan Baldwin are wonderful.  Still, of all the houses featured, I think Pentreath’s own Dorset home remains my favourite:

credit: Ben Pentreath Ltd.

credit: Ben Pentreath Ltd.

Needless to say, I will be handing out an updated Christmas list to my family with these two books added.

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Were I to hold a competition to judge the most difficult book to review from my reading this year, the winner would be, without a doubt, Georgette Heyer by Jennifer Kloester.  I read it in April.  I have read almost 150 books since then and this one – this dreaded review – has haunted me the entire time.

The problem is this: I love Georgette Heyer but do not love Jennifer Kloester.  Since biographies depend on both the subject and the author, this made for a troubling situation.

First, let us get the unpleasantness out of the way and as quickly as possible: Kloester is a clumsy writer and makes no attempt at the kind of analysis that good biographies require.  The effort it took to make it through the charmless and plodding first chapter (with its important insights into such details as the infant Georgette’s “good appetite”) was considerable.  Kloester is obviously a great Heyer fan and her fascination with her subject did endear her to me somewhat, but that is what has made this review so difficult to write.  I love that Kloester feels passionately enough about Heyer to have written this.  For years, we fans have had to make do with Joan Aiken Hodge’s The Private World of Georgette Heyer, which does a wonderful job of discussing the novels and detailing Heyer’s research techniques but which is also, like Kloester’s biography, limited by the very private nature of its subject.  But once you move beyond some bizarrely structured sentences, a needless amount of detail, a few questionable speculations and a generally awkward style of writing, Kloester does an excellent job of giving her readers what they want: more information about Heyer.  That is why I kept reading and that is what, in the end, made this such a fascinating and enjoyable book.

Phew.  It only took me seven months to figure out how to say all that.

Part of what appeals to me about Georgette Heyer – beyond my deep affection for her as the author of some of the most delightfully amusing books in my collection – is the very serious way she approached her work.  She was not ones of those authors who waxed poetic about their “art” or made any attempts to romanticize it.  She had a formula – a very successful one – and she used it to write bestsellers.  Give me a writer who writes to get paid, a creator of “good bad books”, and more often than not they will earn themselves a place on my favourites list.  Heyer was certainly one of these, alongside my adored Angela Thirkell and the incomparable Agatha Christie, who, it turns out, were among Heyer’s favourite authors as well:

Georgette could be a tough critic and had no time for what she considered verbiage.  Her preference was for those skilled in the craft of writing and her favourite authors were those whose mastery of language or distinct voice set their writing apart such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Noël Coward, Angela Thirkell, Stephen Leacock, Agatha Christie, Alistair MacLean and Raymond Chandler.

(Simon will be pleased to hear that this just makes me that much more eager to read Ivy Compton-Burnett.)

Though Kloester sadly does not go deeply into Heyer’s research and writing process (though, to the best of my memory, the Hodge biography does a very good job of this), what glimpses she does give us are fascinating:

…her characters were often the starting point for her novels.  She would first imagine an individual, then spend hours thinking about him or her while playing endless games of patience, fleshing the character out in her mind and devising a suitable name.  Once created, a character’s behaviour and dialogue follow naturally.  Georgette found it impossible to force one of her creations to behave in a manner contrary to their established personality.  When writing a book her dramatis personae lived for her to the extent that they frequently determined the course of the story.

One of the main problems with Heyer for many readers is that, simply put, she was not an easy person to like.  Despite the sparkling wit and charm of her novels, Heyer was not a warm woman, nor did she particularly care about making other people like her.  She could be snobbish and anti-Semitic, had little patience for her fans, was possessed of a “sharp, all too accurate, caustic tongue” and was shy and impatient when forced to socialise.  A social butterfly she was not:

Georgette never sought to be part of a large social group.  She was happiest in her own company, with Ronald, or with a small group of intimates (Richard described his mother as ‘very, very shy’ and ‘to hide this, she would talk nineteen to the dozen to strangers’).  Although she was interested in people it was more often as an observer of human nature than as someone who wished to befriend them.  Those, like Pat Wallace, who penetrated her outer reserve found her a kind, caring and generous friend, but to the rest of the world she could appear grand and formidable – someone who could hold people at a distance with a word or a look.

For her, it was more important to have a small group of intimate friends and, above all, a close relationship with her husband, Ronald.  One of the strengths of this biography is Kloester’s portrait of Heyer’s marriage to Ronald Rougier.  Part of what makes Heyer’s novels so appealing is the strong understanding and admiration her heroes and heroines feel for one another, the understanding that “a successful relationship takes time and that true love requires mutual understanding and empathy and not mere physical attraction.”  There is love and attraction, certainly, but she is very clear that that alone does not a marriage make.  Love-struck supporting characters are humoured but not encouraged; if a match is made among these underlings, their happiness is never quite as certain as that of the leading couple who we know will be friends as well as lovers.  Kloester takes great care (and it is greatly appreciated) to illustrate Georgette and Ronald’s compatibility and their contentment throughout their marriage.  For many years, Heyer was the main breadwinner and, far from resenting her, Ronald served as her greatest supporter, chief critic and main research assistant:

They were great friends.  Georgette and Ronald shared many common interests and she endured his irascibility and outbursts of temper while he coped with her forceful personality and determination to be right.  When they did fight it was usually over a point of history (one of their more serious arguments was over the Divine Right of Kings) or a word or phrase in one of her manuscripts, rather than over more mundane things like domestic problems or money.

What does irritate me about Kloester’s portrait of the Rougier’s marriage (Georgette was very happy to be Mrs Ronald Rougier in private life) is her speculation about their sex life:

Whether Georgette herself ever experienced an overwhelming urge for sex is impossible to know, although a close friend described her as ‘not terribly interested’ in sex.  She and Ronald only had one child and for much of their married life slept in separate beds, giving little or no impression that physical lovemaking was an intrinsic part of their life together.  Georgette had her passions but they were not physical.  Her marriage to Ronald was first and foremost a marriage of two minds.

That, as far as I can find, is it: on the basis of one remark from a friend and the existence of separate beds, it is decided that Heyer did not like sex.  I am not convinced by such limited evidence and I wish biographers (since Kloester is hardly the only one guilty of this) would refrain from such speculation when evidence is so limited.

But limited evidence is rather a theme with Heyer.  She was an extremely private person (again, this just makes me like her more) and there were no revealing diaries or indiscrete personal letters for the hopeful biographer to pounce on.  Kloester had access to private letters and documents (which had not been available when Hodge prepared her biography) and uses them extensively, though not judiciously, but they are mostly business correspondence.  As a biography of Georgette Heyer the businesswoman, this is ideal.  As the biography of Georgette Heyer the woman, less so.  Kloester does the best with what she has though, even if she is given to quoting incredibly dull and pointless correspondence at length.

This is not a perfect biography but I still adored it.  Yes, I have my issues with Kloester but, in the end, she brought me more information about Heyer and, after that difficult first chapter, I found myself too fascinated to care much about any technical or structural flaws in her writing.  Whether you like her or not, Heyer is fascinating.

Of course, reading this made me want to reread all of Heyer’s novels.  In the spring I was able to resist that urge but reviewing this has brought it back.  I can’t help but notice that of the 12 years I have left to complete for A Century of Books, five could be filled with novels by Heyer…

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I am not drawn to poetry.  I was never one of those sentimental adolescents who spends hours scribbling their feelings in verse and, aside from a brief infatuation with Tennyson, was never particularly drawn to the works of any major poet.  So what compelled me to pick up Summoned by Bells by John Betjeman, a memoir in blank verse from 1960?

I actually got on with it much better than I had expected.  I had liked what I had read of Betjeman’s work before – light verse being my only poetic preference – but really knew very little about his early life, except that his teddy bear had inspired Sebastian’s Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited.  Here, he covers the years leading up to his departure from Oxford (“failed in Divinity!”), which suits me perfectly: childhood memoirs are always my preference.

Betjeman is so good at creating very personal and very vivid images with his poetry, this passage about his beloved teddy bear (Archibald Ormsby-Gore) being a perfect example and one of my favourite excerpts from the book:

Safe were those evenings of the pre-war world
When firelight shone on green linoleum;
I heard the church bells hollowing out the sky,
Deep beyond the deep, like never-ending stars,
And turned to Archibald, my safe old bear,
Whose woollen eyes looked sad or glad at me,
Whose ample forehead I could wet with tears,
Whose half-moon ears received my confidence,
Who made me laugh, who never let me down.
I used to wait for hours to see him move,
Convinced that he could breathe.  One dreadful day
They hid him from me as a punishment:
Sometimes the desolation of that loss
Comes back to me and I must go upstairs
To see him in the sawdust, so to speak,
Safe and returned to his idolator.

Blank verse is an interesting format for memoir and I did learn a lot about Betjeman’s early life – there was a terrifying nanny, a father disappointed by his son’s disinterest in joining the family business, a few darling nursery school love affairs, and some miserable years at school – but I longed for more detail.  And in prose.  I cared far more about the facts that I did about the style in which they were conveyed, which has always been my problem with poetry.  Where the prose writer would indulge in expansive detail, the poet practices artful restraint.  It is an impressive skill but not one I can fully appreciate, not when I am so nosy as to long for more information!

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When I saw Under a Cruel Star by Heda Margolius Kovály, a memoir about life in Czechoslovakia from 1941 to 1968, in the House of Anansi catalogue last spring, I immediately asked if they would send me a copy.  They, being extraordinarily kind and exceeding prompt, did so immediately and I am ashamed that it took me until October to finally read it because it is truly an extraordinary book.

It is the sustained power of the book that is most remarkable.  Beginning with Kovály’s wartime experiences in the Lodz Ghetto and then in a labour camp and continuing through until the autumn of 1968, when she left Prague after the Russian invasion, there is not a single moment when her story lags.  It is horrifying, capturing some of the worst features of the 20th Century, but mesmerizing and wonderfully told.

Kovály was a survivor.  The rest of her family perished in the Holocaust, but not she.  Towards the end of the war, she and fellow female inmates were being marched west, away from the ever encroaching Eastern front.  She and a couple of the other girls managed to escape the guards, despite their weakened states:

People often asked me: How did you manage?  To survive the camps!  To escape!  Everyone assumes it is easy to die but that the struggle to live requires a superhuman effort.  Mostly, it is the other way around.  There is, perhaps, nothing harder than waiting passively for death.  Staying alive is simple and natural and does not require any particular resolve.

When she finally reaches her home, when she returns to Prague…for me this was the most affecting portion of the whole book.  She wanders from friend to friend, trying to find someone who will shelter and help her.  Her best friend, who had sworn when Kovály and her family were deported to do all he could for them, is horrified when she appears at his door and rushes her away.  Other can supply food, some clothes, maybe a bed for night but there is no warm welcome to greet her.  After so many years spent living under Nazi rule, everyone is terrified and fear is the most common reaction to Kovály’s sudden appearance at their doors.  And why not?  After years of occupation and with the war’s end in sight, “what”, as one of Kovály’s friends asks, “sense is does it make anyway to risk one life for another?”  The posters in the streets, listing the names of people – sometimes entire families – killed for trying to help people like Kovály are a daily reminder of what danger her friends face by being in contact with her.

She eventually finds shelter and, finally, the war ends and she can emerge from hiding.  But, of course, nothing goes back to normal.  She is reunited with old friends who had been interned in other concentration camps – including Rudolf Margolius, who she would soon marry – but her family is gone as well as most of her possessions.  She and other Holocaust survivors did not receive a universally warm welcome back to Prague, as Kovály details in one of the most moving passages of the book:

Sometimes a bedraggled and barefoot concentration camp survivor plucked up his courage and knocked on the door of prewar friends to ask, ‘Excuse me, do you by any chance still have some of the stuff we left with you for safekeeping?’  And the friend could say, ‘You must be mistaken, you didn’t leave anything with us, but come in anyway!’  And they would seat him in the parlour where his carpets lay on the floor and pour herb tea into antique cups that had belonged to his grandmother.  The survivor would thank them, sip his tea, look at the walls where his paintings hung.  He would say to himself, ‘What does it matter?  As long as we’re alive?  What does it matter?’

At other times, it would not turn out so nicely.  The prewar friends would not make tea, would not suggest any mistake.  They would just laugh and say in astonishment, ‘Come on now, do you really believe we would store your stuff all through the war, exposing ourselves to all that risk just to give it back to you now?’  And the survivor would laugh too, amazed at his own stupidity, would apologize politely and leave.  Once downstairs he would laugh again, happily, because it was spring and the sun was shining down on him.

It would also happen that a survivor might need a lawyer to retrieve lost documents and he would remember the name of one who had once represented large Jewish companies.  He would go to see him and sit in an empire chair in the corner of an elegant waiting room, enjoying all that good taste and luxury, watching pretty secretaries rushing about.  Until one of the pretty girls forgot to close a door behind her, and the lawyer’s sonorous voice would boom through the crack, ‘You would have thought we’d be rid of them finally, but no, they’re impossible to kill off – not even Hitler could manage it.  Every day there’re more of them crawling back, like rats…’  And the survivor would quietly get up from his chair and slip out of the waiting room, this time not laughing.  On his way down the stairs his eyes would mist over as if with the smoke of the furnaces at Auschwitz.

The entire book is a consideration of the moral choices made under trying circumstances, of how human nature responds to the repressive force of totalitarianism, be it fascism or communism.  Though these forces – and the common passivity of most citizens when faced with an oppressive regime – shaped her life, Kovály retains a remarkably fair-minded perspective.  Her focus is not on her emotional reaction to her situation.  We hear about her feelings, yes, but more often we see her trying to make sense of what happened to her, trying to describe how and why people were acting in the ways that impacted her life, trying to track the moral descent that began with the Occupation and persisted after the war’s end:

Those who had compromised their integrity during the Occupation now began to calculate and plan, to watch and spy on each other, to cover their tracks, eager to secure the property they had acquired through collaboration with the Germans, by cowardice or denunciation, or by looting the homes of deported Jews.  Their sense of guilt and fear of retribution soon bred hate and suspicion directed mainly at the real victims of the Occupation: the active and passive resisters, the partisans, the Jews, and political prisoners; the honest people who had stood their ground and had not betrayed their principles even at the cost of persecution.  The innocent became a living reproach and a potential threat to the guilty.

For Kovály and her husband, communism seemed the answer to this kind of easily warped self-interest.  She does a particularly good job of explaining why they were drawn to communism and explaining the significant role their wartime experiences played in that:

A strong sense of solidarity had evolved in the concentration camps, the idea that one individual’s fate was in every way tied to the fate of the group, whether that meant the group of one’s fellow prisoners, the whole nation, or even all of humanity.  For many people, the desire for material goods largely disappeared.  As much as we longed for the comforts of life, for good food, clothing, and homes, it was clear to us that these things were secondary…

I will never agree with their reasons for being attracted to communism, but she makes their choice understandable and sets up the tragic situation that they, with Rudolf’s role in the government as Deputy Minister for Foreign Trade, help create.

By the early 1950s, Kovály realises that communism – or at least the communist government her husband is part of – is not going to provide the changes they had dreamt of.  The longed for equality is more distant than ever, as Party members live ridiculously indulgent lives and the Party itself gives preference to its members of ‘peasant’ stock as opposed to the bourgeois intellectuals, like Kovály.  Betraying an interest in theatre, music and literature was something to be avoided at Party banquets, where it was viewed as a sign of elitism.  These years, when the horrible corruption and suspicions beginning to take over everyday life, were awfully painful to read about, especially as they ended with Rudolf’s arrest and eventual execution after the sham Slánský trial in 1952. 

The life of a widow of a traitor is horrible but logistically fascinating.  Companies could not afford to hire employees in bad standing with the Party, so it was difficult for Kovály to find legitimate work to support her and her young son, Ivan.  The Party was responsible for housing, so naturally Kovály and Ivan were evicted from the nice apartment they had lived in during her husband’s tenure as deputy minister and rehoused in a dirty, frigid hovel.  Friends would not talk to her and other parents would not let their children associate with Ivan.  That is why they call it totalitarianism: the government truly does have total control over your life.

Kovály touches only briefly on the years following her second marriage in 1956 (to Pavel Kovály, an old friend) and leading up to 1968.  Her excitement during the Prague Spring was wonderful to read about, the joy at, after so many years of seeing the worst effects of communism on her society, finally seeing that there were still people who cared enough to demand to know what their government was doing, who wanted a role in shaping their own destiny:

All these young people had been reared in a society walled in by censorship, where the expression of any independent opinion was routinely treated as a crime.  What could they know about democracy?  How could they even know what they wanted?  But as the evening progressed, those of us who were much older grew even more amazed and impressed.  We were taken not only by the precision and clarity of the ideas that were voiced but by the high level of the discussion and the discipline of that mass of young people.  They knew exactly what they wanted and what they did not want, what was open for compromise and what they refused to give up.

Kovály left for American in the fall of 1968, tearing herself away from the city she loved.  She was encouraged that the yoke of unquestioning obedience had been broken but was not willing to spend any more of her life in the oppressive darkness of a totalitarian regime now that the Russians had invaded.  When the barbarians once again have control, and you have spent all your life fighting them to no avail, it is time to leave.  She wrote this book in exile, publishing it in Czech with 68 Publishers in Toronto (the publishing house run by Josef Škvorecký and his wife Zdena Salivarová that was devoted to publishing works by Czech and Slovak exiles and dissidents) in 1973.  Her exile was not permanent though: I understand that Kovály and her husband returned to Prague in the mid-1990s and she lived there until her death in 2010.   It is not an easy city to give up, as she well knew:

Prague is not an uncaring backdrop which stands impassive, ignoring happiness and suffering alike.  Prague lives in the lives of her people and they repay her with the love we usually reserve for other human beings.  Prague is not an aggregate of buildings where people are born, work, and die.  She is alive, sad, and brave, and when she smiles with spring, her smile glistens like a tear.

This review is now almost twice the length of what I write for most books, but then Under a Cruel Star is a very special book and probably deserves three or four times more than this. Kovály spent a large portion of her life living ostracized and endangered because of the policies of the governments at the time.  That taught her to loathe totalitarianism but it also taught her about people: how little pressure it takes for a friend to abandon you, how weak those communal bonds really are when tested, and how much stronger the instinct for self-preservation is than the instinct to fight for one’s moral beliefs in order to uphold the honour or accountability of their government.  Kovály shows neither the worst of humanity nor the best – just the average.  The everyman who, under Nazis or Communists, keeps his head down and avoids any entanglements that could cause him or his family trouble, even when he might feel a moral imperative to act.  But fear and self-preservation are usually stronger than even the most dearly held ideals.  These are the important lessons of the book and also the warnings: self-interest may be natural but it also means the destruction of justice and truth, of trust and a life truly worth living.

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