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Archive for the ‘Authors’ Category

Late last year, I picked up The Habsburgs by Martyn Rady, found it entirely absorbing and enjoyable, and then said absolutely nothing about it.  But the delight I had reading it hasn’t faded so, more than eight months after finishing it, let me enthuse about it (and give thanks that I took such detailed notes while reading).

Rady has a written a wonderful, accessible introduction to an unwieldy dynasty.  Covering almost a thousand years, he follows the Habsburgs from their roots in Switzerland through to the collapse of the by-then Vienna-based empire in 1918, racing through the centuries with colourful anecdotes and his own strong opinions. 

My grandfather was born in Austria-Hungary under its final ruler.  My grandmother, a few years later in the same region, was born into a democracy that her father and his friends had dreamed and worked towards for years.  To say that family attitudes towards the empire were – and are – complicated is an understatement.  It’s a common story for many Central and Eastern European countries.  Repression allowed for tolerance, peace was bought with violence, power was rewarded with a strange, resentful type of love.  The empire tempered tensions between nations and ethnic groups but left them simmering.  Whatever loyalty there was to Vienna did not extend to the other peoples of the empire, which led to a rather messy last century.

But the story begins long before the glory days of the Habsburg Empire – before they led the Holy Roman Empire, before they ruled Spain and had rich territories spanning the globe, before Maria Theresia wielded enlightened absolutism and used her children as pawns for dynastic marriages.  It begins modestly in Switzerland, with a noble family consolidating and expanding its power and getting some very lucky breaks along the way.  As we pass through each generation, Rady does an excellent job contextualizing their achievements and advancements in relation to others.  The key to success – especially in the early years – seems to be staying alive.  Much easier to consolidate power when rival families simply peter out.

Predictably, things are most exciting once the Habsburgs reach the heights of their extraordinary power.  Rady details their foibles (many) but also their contributions: how their patronage contributed to great advancements in scientific knowledge and in the creation of timeless art. 

Eras of excess also make for the best anecdotes.  There was something ridiculously noteworthy in most chapters (the Habsburg reputation for madness while simplistic is definitely not unfounded – there are some true wackos in that family tree) but I especially enjoyed a few that had nothing to do with the family itself.  For instance, to highlight the waning power of the Catholic church during the 16th Century, Rady shares this gem:

…in the Tyrol discipline collapsed, with the nuns of Sonnenburg drinking and dining in the local taverns and riding out at night to the homes of noblemen.  Even so, the Sonnenburg convent was rated by visiting clergy at the time as ‘not as bad as others’.

And even amidst the other excesses of the 17th Century, the appearance during “the largest cavalry charge in history” of these Poles during the Battle for Vienna must have struck the opposing Ottomans as unnecessarily dramatic:

At the head of eighteen-thousand horsemen rode [King John] Sobieski’s Polish lancers, from whose armour projected wings made of eagle and ostrich feathers that keened in the wind.

What an entrance that must have been!

Rady is unintimidated by his subjects and is free with his criticisms, especially by the time we reach the 19th century.  I’m not convinced they are always fair but they are undoubtedly well-researched and well articulated.  Even when I don’t agree with Rady, I’m intrigued by his opinions and the way he positions things.  But I feel slightly less generous when I consider that this might be the only book that some people read about the Habsburgs.  Rady is particularly harsh towards Franz Josef, with his love of bureaucracy of protocol, and unforgiving of him for losing Lombardy, Venice and the German Confederation in less than 20 years.  This is one point where I would have appreciated Rady contextualizing more as the nationalist sentiment among Germans and Italians at this time surely was a stronger force than a young ruler’s inexperience. 

For all the criticisms of the Habsburgs, for all the resentments of their rule and complexities of their empire, Rady’s conclusion, as he considers the last century without them, is one I cannot argue with:

Over more than nine centuries the Habsburgs produced simpletons and visionaries, dabblers in magic and freemasonry, fanatics in religion, rulers committed to the welfare of their peoples, patrons of art and champions of science, and builders of great palaces and churches.  Some Habsburgs were dedicated to peace, while others embarked upon fruitless wars.  Even so, as the politics of Central Europe continues to sour, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that…a Habsburg would have done no worse.

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Though the independent woman wasn’t yet a norm in 1936, there were certainly more of them than ever before and so the success that year of Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis should be no surprise.  Written for “extra women” everywhere – but primarily appropriate for New Yorkers, or widows and stenographers across America longing to think of themselves as cosmopolitan New Yorkers – Hillis confidently guides her flock towards achieving enjoyable, fulfilling lives.  It is easy to be swept away by her energy and conviction and there are worse people to be led by – the better part of a century later her advice is still largely applicable and deeply sensible.

Hillis knew her audience: some were young women excitedly starting careers and still anticipating romantic resolutions but many were older, tired, sometimes widowed or divorced, and unsettled in a society that took it for granted that a woman needed a man to have a “full” life.  Hillis is frank about this.  Yes, you will be an inconvenience to your married friends without a man.  Yes, you may not be wanted at dinner parties or bridge games without a partner.  You are inconvenient but, in this, you are not special:

It is a good idea, first of all, to get over the notion (if you have it) that your particular situation is a little bit worse than anyone else’s.  This point of view has been experienced by every individual the world over at one time or another, except perhaps those who will experience it next year.

This is what I love most about Hillis: she is funny and practical but most of all she is frank. 

Hillis tries to make her readers see the opportunities they have.  They can live graciously without having to be at another’s beck and call!  They can have true independence, to do what they like when they like it!  They can devote themselves to their passions – and Hillis is a great believer in having these – without inconveniencing anyone else!  They can nurture interesting groups of friends, be part of the social whirlwind, and retire to perfect peace when they want it at home.  There are joys to living alone, you just need to be intelligent enough to see them and it is this core message that remains absolutely true today: whatever your circumstances, it is up to you to turn them into something you like:

You can live alone gaily, graciously, ostentatiously, dully, stolidly.  Or you can just exist in sullen loneliness, feeling sorry for yourself and arousing no feeling whatever in anybody else.

Across twelve short chapters, Hillis guides her readers through all they need to know about living alone in style and, most entertainingly, illustrates each chapter with case studies of women who have either excelled or failed miserably.  She addresses how to create a beautiful home on a budget, how to stock a liquor cabinet, how to make friends (this chapter remains particularly valuable), how to spend your leisure time (another timeless section), how to make your home a place you want to spend time in, and, very frankly, how to handle the question of men.  Hillis does not assume all her readers will live as nuns and she provides practical, sisterly advice for their consideration:

Certainly, affairs should not even be thought of before you are thirty.  Once you have reached this age, if you will not hurt any third person and can take all that you will have to take – take it silently, with dignity, with a little humour, and without any weeping or wailing or gnashing of teeth – perhaps the experience will be worth it to you.

The sad truth is that whatever you decide, you’ll think you regret it.  You’ll hate the shabby end of romance, and you’ll detest missing it altogether.

If she is determinedly realistic in her musings on sex, she saves her romanticising for the vision of how women should conduct themselves while alone:

…a glass of sherry and an extra special dinner charmingly served on a night when you’re tired and all alone; bath salts in your tub and toilet-water afterward; a new and spicy book when you’re spending an evening in bed; a trim little cotton frock that flatters you on an odd morning when you decide to be violently domestic.  The notion that it ‘doesn’t matter because nobody sees you,’ with the dull meals and dispirited clothes that follow in its wake, has done more damage than all the floods of springtime.

Anyone who can sustain this has my congratulations.  I violated many, many, many of Hillis’ dictates when I lived alone and I am sure my morale would have been much higher if I’d followed them – but then my circumstances felt far removed from the case studies she references.  I was neither living in a charmingly decorated studio apartment nor, in my more generous surroundings, did I have a helpful maid or daily cleaner to come in, whisk away the mess, and serve me tea in bed.  Clearly there were oversights and I shall do better next time. 

Despite her belief in pampering yourself, Hillis is extremely practical on the question of money – she has endless suggestions for cheap entertainments in NYC, ideas for ways to meet people, and never, ever believes that money is the solution.  Money cannot buy you taste or happiness and it is far more fun, she assures us, to live well on what you have than to try to project a level of wealth your paycheque can’t support.  Wit, ingenuity and energy are the answer to living well, not a chequebook.  Hillis had so much good advice to share on this topic that her next book – Bubbly on Your Budget – was devoted to it and should not be missed.

While the case studies can tend to hilarious extremes, the core advice of Live Alone and Like It is grounded, practical and essentially timeless.  And written in Hillis’ breezy, forceful style it is irresistible.

Many thanks to Simon and Karen for organizing the 1936 Club this week and providing the perfect excuse for me to finally read this after so many years of planning to!

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When I find myself in times of trouble, my remedy is slightly different than The Beatles’.  I inevitably reach for a book and, more often than not when things are too dark or stressful or scary, that book is the delightful Little G by E.M. Channon.  In the not-quite seven years I have owned a copy, I have read it at least five times and – no surprise – it was one of the first books I read during the lockdown of spring 2020.  It is no less comforting this spring, with the dual motivation of reading it for the 1936 Club and to provide comfort amidst the dire Covid third wave we are experiencing here.

John Furnival is a pre-maturely stuffy, antisocial Cambridge mathematician who is ordered by his doctor on a long country stay to recover his health, which, his doctor chides him, has suffered due to:

Too much to eat: too much port and too much tea: too much work for your head, and not enough for your body.

Because the world of 1930s academia is forgiving of the need to do work – especially by dons with private incomes – Furnival is soon installed in a cottage in the village of Challingley.  The village, from the doctor’s perspective, is ideal.  It’s hilly enough to force Furnival to discomfort on his walks, quiet but full of sociable neighbours, and the cottage offers a large garden to rest or putter in.  Furnival is less convinced, disgusted by his new neighbours’ obsessions with their gardens, tennis parties, and, most horrifyingly of all, the pretty young widow at the center of the village’s social life.  But he is firmly drawn into the social whirl and realises – slowly and to his horror – what an unattractive foil he serves against this healthy, vigorous set.  Surely he – once a champion rower and tennis player – isn’t the sweaty old man set next to the village’s quick vicar or dashing doctor?  And at only thirty-seven!

While adult society may terrify or bore him in equal measure, Furnival finds himself much more at home with the cottage’s cat – the only creature he was immediately delighted to encounter in his new surroundings – and his next-door neighbours, three children living with their terrifying Aunt Agatha.  Rather to his surprise, the children are pleasant companions and it isn’t long before the three are slipping from their yard to his, eager for his stories and spoiling.  Furnival, for the first time in years, is giving thought and attention to something other than his equations (though his versions of children’s stories are very physics-focused).  But there is yet another resident next door, the children’s aunt Grace, who is that most terrifying of things – a young woman.  Thankfully she is not so terrifying as most of her species, being rather small and quiet, but also very capable and quick-witted and rather pretty…

Over the course of his time in the village, Furnival is forced out of his almost monastic mindset and learns once again how to be human.  He relearns how to care for others and to take care of himself and questions his long-held and unquestioned visions of a solitary, scholarly future.

This sounds very sweet, which it is, but Channon is a clever, funny writer and it’s that spark of humour that makes this book so memorable.  She is more than happy to skewer Furnival, but always affectionately, and the neighbours who most concern him (the female ones) aren’t nearly as one dimensional as his initial imaginings of them.  That’s not to stay this is a novel of great characterization and depth – it decidedly is not – but it’s far better than the sentimental drivel it could have been in another writer’s hands and I love it desperately.  The only sad thing about it is how difficult it is now to find copies.  It was reissued by Greyladies Books in 2012 but it’s almost impossible to find second-hand copies.  I’m not surprised – I certainly wouldn’t give mine up!    

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I can think of no better way to start off February than by taking part in Karen and Lizzy’s Reading Independent Publishers Month.  Independent publishers should always be celebrated – and thankfully often are in our corner of the blogging world – and I’m looking forward to seeing what others choose this month.

To start off the month a little early, I settled down yesterday afternoon with A House in Flanders by Michael Jenkins from Slightly Foxed (now sadly marked as “permanent sold out” on their website).  In addition to their peerless literary quarterly, Slightly Foxed reissues wonderful memoirs in gorgeous small hardback editions.  They have superb taste and have introduced me to new favourites as well as providing me with beautiful editions of old ones.  To me, a Slightly Foxed title is always an indication of quality, both in the writing and in the production of the physical book.  I will doubtlessly return to celebrate them further this month and it felt only reasonable to start with them.

At the beginning of the summer of 1951, fourteen-year-old Michael was sent by his parents in England to spend several months with “the aunts in Flanders.”  Despite not being actual relations – or having been seen by his parents since they visited on their honeymoon in the 1930s – the aunts are delighted to welcome this young man into their rural chateau, where Michael is quickly infatuated by the close-knit family:

…as I passed through the brick gateway perched on the front seat of an ancient black Citroen beside Joseph, the gardener who doubled as chauffer, and saw behind the trees the long façade of the house, I believe I had some premonition that a new life was about to unfold.  And if after only a day the world I had left behind seemed already remote, within weeks I no longer knew which was reality, the coldness and austerity of my existence in post-war England, or the dense fabric of extended family by which I was embraced, and within whose lives I had become entwined.

Each chapter focuses on a different character, beginning and ending with the formidable Tante Yvonne.  Then in her eighties, Tante Yvonne had taken charge of her five siblings when their parents died of typhoid when she was a young woman of twenty.  More than sixty years later, she remained at the heart of the family and of the village, always able to provide order where needed and deft counsel to those in need.  She never married and the story behind that is how Michael comes to understand his family’s link to the aunts.

Throughout the summer, Michael learns much of life.  He sees how the family cares for the mentally disabled illegitimate son of a brother who died in the First World War, he passes messages between an unhappily married nephew and his kind lover, and he lives amidst the tensions of a house containing six adult women who have somehow – mostly – learned to live with one another.  For him, coming from a chilly home with parents who have drifted apart without choosing to seek happiness elsewhere, it is an irresistible world and one he can’t imagine wanting to leave.  But there are those who want to, like the beautiful young Madeleine, who lives with her mother and aunts and is engaged to a handsome neighbour but is nonetheless unsettled and longs for something more.

Michael lives closely with two generations and it is fascinating to see how different events have shaped their lives.  For Tante Yvonne and her siblings, the First World War was the defining event.  Brothers and lovers were killed and maimed and nothing was ever the same for them after that.  For those born after that war, like Madeleine and her brothers, it was the more recent German occupation.  The wounds of that conflict hadn’t fully healed for anyone – the entire village remembers who collaborated and who was in the Resistance, and German tourists are far from welcomed when they appear.

Jenkins wrote the book fifty years after that first summer, looking back on a time and place that had remained vivid in his memories – as the best moments of our youths tend to do.  He conjures up an idyllic summer where he found a whole world of complicated people to care about and family histories – his own included – to unravel.  When, come September, he must return to England, the reader can easily understand his reluctance to leave.

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Possession by A.S. Byatt is a work of absolute genius.

It’s been a chaotic work week for me with plenty of long days but even when I can only manage an hour of reading a day, it’s been a joy to slip back into Byatt’s 1990 Booker Prize winner novel of Victorian romance and modern-day academic sleuthing.

Byatt didn’t just write a novel.  She wrote poems and short stories and letters and diaries and biographies and academic analysis from multiple perspectives on all of it.  And yes, she also wrote a narrative that weaves it altogether.  The entirety is so cleverly conceived and brilliantly executed that it boggles the mind.

If you haven’t picked it up in a while (or ever?  What a treat you have in store in that case!), I urge you to do so now.  It’s a perfect book to immerse yourself in, offering multiple worlds, immense passion, and also, I had forgotten, quite a lot of humour around the academic rivalries.

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If there is one thing 2020 has taught us it is that we can only control so much – but what we do control has the power to make us happy and keep us calm in uncertain times.  It is in that spirit that I think everyone should track down a copy of Year of Wonder by Clemency Burton-Hill and embrace the power of music to comfort and delight you in 2021 and years to come.

First published in 2017, this wonderful book is a daily guide to classical music.  A broadcaster and musician (and actress and journalist and…many, many things), Burton-Hill put it together after years of making playlists for friends and hosting radio programmes, eager to help introduce others to the genre she loves and yet which seems so far removed from many people’s lives.  As she puts it in her introduction:

What I am determined to do…is to extend a hand to those who feel that the world of classical music is a party to which they haven’t been invited.  I want to open up this vast treasury of musical riches by suggesting a single piece to listen to every day of the year: by giving it some context, telling some stories about the people behind it, and reminding you that it was created by a real person – probably someone who shared many of the same concerns as you, who wished to express themselves and happened to do so through this particular sequence of musical notes.  It’s really important to remember that music does not exist in a vacuum: it requires listeners, audiences, witnesses in order to come alive; to be heard, to be felt.  And that’s you!

With one piece selected for each day of the year, Burton-Hill guides listeners through familiar classics, forgotten gems, and contemporary works.  It is an exciting collection and for every work of genius by Mozart or Bach (who rightly have multiple entries throughout the year), there is something I would never have found by someone I have never heard of.  Refreshingly, Burton-Hill includes pieces by more than 40 female composers.

Though the main goal of the book is to demystify the genre for those who might have viewed it as an elitist art form, the book is just as rewarding for those of us who have been attending classical concerts all our lives and listen to little else.  I grew up in a house where classical music – so cheap and easy to access in our modern world, thanks to radios, home audio systems, and now the internet – was always on and where trips to children’s programmes at the symphony started so early that I can’t remember my first concerts.  My mother was raised in a world where everyone went to operas and concert halls, travelling by tram and sitting in boxes alongside teachers and factory workers, so took it for granted that music was necessary for everyone.  She lulled her babies to sleep with Brahms and Mozart and we accordingly assumed it as part of our lives.  It wasn’t until we started spending time at friends’ houses that we realised this wasn’t the case for everyone – and frankly that still boggles my mind.  Clearly, what those friends (and their parents) needed was this book.

While some pairings of music and day are significant – many composers are featured on their birthdays and national independence days marked by compositions from proud sons/daughters – others are more whimsical.  In January she offers up “music that feels like a large glass of red wine” and later a piece to console listeners simply because it is mid-February and we all need a bit of consoling as we wait for spring.  The descriptions of pieces are engaging and informative, giving context to the pieces and their composers, and never more than one page long.

My only quibble – because I am the least technologically-inclined millennial in the world – is that the music itself is available only on streaming playlists (on iTunes and Spotify) and not in a mammoth CD collection.  I hate having my devices nearby when I read and would love to be able to put the music on easily while I read.  But recognize that I am a dinosaur and need to get with the times.  Or burn my own CDs…

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2020 is a strange year to look back on.  In some ways it was the year that felt like a decade, with so much happening so quickly and headlines changing every minute.  But in other ways I look back to things that happened in January and February and they feel so recent, largely because there was so little to fill the time memorably since then.

Reading, as always, has been a saviour and with limited opportunities to socialise there was more time than ever for it this year.  I made it through a ridiculous number of books, which provided comfort, distraction, entertainment, education, and companionship through this odd year.  Here are my ten favourites:

10. Plot 29 (2017) – Allan Jenkins
Not the book I thought it was going to be when I picked it up, but instead far more powerful and memorable.  Jenkins set out to write about gardening and his relationship with his foster family but instead undergoes a very emotional journey, unravelling the mysteries of his troubled birth family.

9. Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (2019) – Ursula Buchan
I loved this biography of the ever-fascinating John Buchan.  He was a man of such purpose, energy and loyalty and his varied accomplishments and loving legacy are a testament to these increasingly rare virtues.  His biographer is his granddaughter and she paints a rounded portrait of him both at home and at work throughout his too-short and extraordinarily busy life.

8. The Eighth Life (2014) – Nino Haratischvili (translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin)
A brilliant saga tracing the lives of the members of one Georgian family across almost one hundred tumultuous years, from the Russian Revolution to the early years of the 21st Century.  I loved every page.

7. Madensky Square (1988) – Eva Ibbotson
I think we all struggled with our reading at some point this year, a frustrating process when we know how helpful books can be in times of stress and uncertainty.  I read mindlessly for most of March and April but picked this up at the beginning of May and it broke the curse.  Ibbotson is always comforting but serious times called for serious measures and nothing but Madensky Square, the best of her novels, would do.  I wrote about it years ago and my love for its heroine Susanna and her friends and neighbours on Madensky Square in pre-war Vienna only grows with each rereading.

6. Love in the Blitz (2020) – Eileen Alexander
What a delight!  This collection of Second World War love letters written by a young Cambridge graduate to her future husband bubbles with humour, lust, and anxiety, tracking their romance from its infancy through declarations, separation, engagement and marriage.  I shared a few of the letters (here and here) and had to restrain myself from sharing dozens more.  Alexander is remarkably frank in her letters and they make for very refreshing reading.

5. Out of Istanbul (2001) – Bernard Ollivier (translated by Dan Golembeski)
This story of one man’s journey along the Silk Road was just what I needed in this travel-free year.  In the spring of 1999, the sixty-one-year-old Ollivier set off from Istanbul intending to hike several months each year in the quest to reach his ultimate destination: China.  This volume covers the first leg of that journey, when he made it almost to the Iranian border before being felled by illness.  It’s a fascinating journey and Ollivier is refreshingly free of the arrogance of so many male travel writers, who set out convinced of their invincibility.

4. Beartown (2017) – Fredrik Backman (translated by Neil Smith)
Set in a small hockey-obsessed town in Sweden, Beartown thoughtfully looks at how a horrible event splits the community.  When the town’s hockey star rapes a girl at a party, the majority of the town immediately rallies around him.  It’s an incredibly powerful story about the dangers of group identities, told simply and with great empathy, and deserves every bit of hype and praise that has been heaped upon it.

3. Pravda Ha Ha (2019) – Rory MacLean
A chillingly important journey through today’s Russia and other increasingly authoritarian Eastern European states.

2. Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry (1941) – Margaret Kennedy
Kennedy’s memoir of the first spring and summer of the Second World War is a wonderful record of a strange time and reading it through our own bizarre spring was perfect timing.  When everything felt uncertain, it was reassuring to be reminded that people had reacted the same way eighty years before (and ignored the same good advice that was being doled out both then and now).

1. Business as Usual (1933) – Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford
Business as Usual was the happiest discovery for me this year, and for many others, thanks to its spring reissue by Handheld Press.  And if ever there was a year where we needed happy books, 2020 was it. This epistolary novel about an optimistic young woman’s move to London and work at a large department store is enchanting and I delighted in Hilary’s determined progress.  It is that rare book that suits me in most moods, giving me something to laugh over when I am down, to comfort me in times of stress, and to inspire action when I am feeling daunted by the world.

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The only mistake I made in reading Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford this year was that I did it too early: this would have been the perfect book to soothe and comfort during the stressful early months of the pandemic but it was just as delightful when read in the calmness of January.

Published in 1933 (and reissued this spring by Handheld Press), Business as Usual tells with dashing epistolary style and comic illustrations the story of Hilary Fane.  Hilary, a young woman of twenty-seven with a history degree from Oxford and previous work experience as both a teacher and librarian, is trying to fill the time before she marries her fiancé Basil, a young doctor.  Anticipating at least a year before the wedding and, having been made redundant from her last job, Hilary is looking for a way to occupy herself.  As she explains to Basil:

…I know I couldn’t wait for you if I were idle, sitting about and trying to fill the gap between one lovely experience and another with those dreary little sociabilities that you despise as much as I do.  I wish I had the kind of talents that you’d really like to have about the house, my lamb.  It would all be so much simpler if my bent were music or if I could write.  But it isn’t any use, Basil, I haven’t any talents; even my drawings always got me into trouble.  I’ve just got undecorative ability and too much energy to be happy without a job.

And so she sets off, leaving her parents’ comfortable Scottish home for exceedingly humble lodgings in London and a job in a department store (a thinly veiled Selfridges).  She eventually finds herself working in the store’s library (I would never complain about going shopping if department stores still had these!) and the story follows her throughout the year as she advances at work, makes friends, and discovers the simple pleasures of her new life:

Oh, Basil, there are compensations!  It’s worth sleep-walking from nine to six all the week just to wake up on Saturday with half a day and a night and another day after that unquestionably one’s own.  I came out of Everyman’s and watched all the other people with hockey sticks and skates and suit-cases tearing for buses.  But I strolled, feeling marvellous.  Rather as if I’d kicked off a tightish pair of shoes.

Hilary is a wonderful character, full of energy and warmth and attractively straightforward in discussing anything on her mind.  Basil, we can tell from Hilary’s side of the correspondence, doesn’t share these traits:

I can fail and start again.  And with you to believe in my work, I could.

Only, now and then, I feel you don’t.  Do try to.  I mean, think of me as a creature, not just as a possible wife who will persist in doing things that tend to disqualify her.  I love you frightfully; but I want your companionship and tolerance and understanding even more than other things.  I wonder if you see?

Basil, the reader decides long before Hilary, must go.  Luckily, there is a very suitable replacement close at hand.

I love stories about work – I find hearing about people’s working hours and salaries and how they manage to live on said salaries endlessly fascinating – and I adore epistolary novels so the combination of the two was always going to be something that interested me.  But this book manages to be far more than interesting.  The reader cannot help but adore Hilary, who is endlessly curious, admirably efficient, and inspiringly intrepid.  It is a book to laugh over and to read for comfort and inspiration when you are feeling daunted by the world.  It is, frankly, quite perfect, which is why I am picking it up again as the book to see out 2020 with. It’s never too soon to reread great books.

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In a year full of comfort reads, Pravda Ha Ha by Rory MacLean made quite a change.  It’s about as far from comforting as you can get and is as urgent and important as it is upsetting.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, MacLean set out across the newly opened East.  Thirty years later, he follows his journey in reverse, from Russia through the Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, Germany, Switzerland and finally back home to the UK, trying to make sense of how the hope and optimism he saw on his original journey has led to the corruption, authoritarianism, and exploitation rampant in Eastern Europe today.

Russia is, of course, at the heart of it all.  MacLean begins his journey there and his writing on it is superb, though the anecdotes he shares would hardly be credible were they from any other country.  With oligarchs, illegal immigrants, and hackers, he glimpses the new Russia, which looks disarmingly familiar to the old.  Its simplistic narratives about its history help fuel Putin’s mythologized version of the 20th Century, and kitschy celebrations are held for the glorious victories of the Second World War:

Beyond the billboard was the Night Watch festival ground.  Here every summer the notorious motorcycle gang re-enacted the Second World War.  In pyrotechnic fantasies and high-octane motorcycle stunts, ‘heroic’ Red Army bikers battled ‘heartless’ Wehrmacht BMW riders before taking on goose-stepping ‘pro-Western’ demonstrators.  In last year’s performance the Statue of Liberty even made an appearance, spewing a fiery retch of dollars ‘to poison, separate and kill the Slavic peoples.’

The flip side of this is the pointed erasure of Soviet crimes from the history books.  While other nations have worked to face their pasts, Russia has chosen to ignore it.  As MacLean says, “few Russians accept that past atrocities must be unearthed and confessed for the psychic health of a society”.    Attempts are made by volunteers to raise awareness, in the belief that these events must be acknowledged so that future generations can learn from them – but that seems to be exactly what Putin wants to avoid.  How much easier to focus on a proud history as a nation of victors.

I like to think I’m relatively well-informed and not too naïve about current affairs, but at times I feel like I could not keep up with all of the threats posed by Russia.  The most chilling – perhaps because it was the one I was least aware of – was Russia’s ability to use human trafficking as a weapon against the EU:

Russia’s 1,300-mile-long northern frontier with Norway and Finland is among the country’s most strategic, guarded by the army, the KGB and the Border Service.  Along its length nothing happens without Moscow’s approval.  They Kremlin alone decides which roads to open and close in the heavily militarized region.

…No proof existed of the involvement of the Russian state, yet – immediately after Helsinki had voiced support for NATO – some 1,500 refugees were dispatched across its border as a warning.  The Kremlin wanted to remind the Finns that over eleven million foreigners lived on Russian territory, a vast pool of potential migrants who could be used to flood Europe.

Moving to Hungary, MacLean finds a sadder land.  Russia may be sinister but it is bold and confident and powerful.  Hungary, so hopeful in its new independence on MacLean’s original journey, has walked a darker path.  The country struggled to adjust to capitalism and while some succeeded, many were left behind to struggle:

In the communist years everyone had a job.  Everyone had a roof over their head.  ‘Workers pretended to work and the authorities pretended to pay them’ was a well-worn cliché, meant as a joke, yet it contained a grain of truth.  But the joke vanished with the Wall.  In the early 1990s workers’ hostels were closed, along with redundant factories, throwing tens of thousands onto the street.  Many tried their luck at small start-ups, opening video-rental shops, nail parlours or a corner grocery, losing everything when their enterprises failed.  They left their villages and towns in shame, escaping bad debts, joining the exodus to the capital.

It is no wonder that these people, left with nothing and with no support, long for certainty while trusting no one.  Which is how they ended up with their current authoritarian government, to the distress of MacLean’s old liberal friends:

‘Remember what I told you: Hungary placed its faith in the losers of every war since the sixteenth century.  This twenty-first century will be no exception.’  Alajos said in toast: ‘To a once hopeful Hungary.  Long may we mourn her death.’

Things are no better in Poland, where MacLean finds himself losing patience during a conversation with several thirty-something men who work in the country’s increasingly state-controlled media:

‘Do you fear Poland becoming a one-party state?’ I asked them.

‘The real question is, do we need an opposition?’ replied the American, almost impressive in his complete sincerity.  ‘There are such diverse opinions in the PiS.’

‘And what about the party’s tolerance of the far right?’ I said…

‘Our strength keeps them out of power.’

‘As in Berlin in 1933?’

Across all of these countries, MacLean sees lies being presented at the truth, myths obscuring more complicated realities, the complicated being passed by in favour of the simplistic.  How easy it is to guide countries once their people are motivated only by fear and pride.  But he returns home sadder still to see signs of the same behaviour at home: “How could the English – a people raised in a stable, peaceful and prosperous society with centuries of democracy and freedom – have swallowed the vapid promises of restored glory?  How could they – we – have allowed ourselves to be played like puppets?”

How indeed?

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I felt a little shaky and battered after reading Plot 29 by Allan Jenkins.  I thought I was picking up a memoir about how gardening had helped Jenkins throughout his life but was entirely unprepared for the detective story that unfolded as Jenkins seeks to understand his childhood and the family he came from.  At several points in the diary-style chronicle Jenkins stops himself, wondering what his story has become, slightly surprised by the darkness on each page:

It has been a year since I started this journal, my journey through my life and the life of my plot, my past unfurling like leaves.  It was to be different: a story of a small boy and the man he became, wrapped in flowers and food.  Other voices have drowned it out…

It begins as the story of Allan and his elder brother, Christopher, brought together ages five and six after spending their early years apart, in locations and circumstances Jenkins eventually, chillingly, begins to piece together.  Bonded, they are sent to foster with an older couple – the Drabbles – in rural Devon.  Stability never quite turns into family or full acceptance and the cycle of Allan and Christopher parting and living separate lives continues painfully.  But it is with his foster family that Allan discovers the joy of growing things, the certainty and hope that seeds and plants hold, and finds a passion that will help center him throughout his life.

We learn of Christopher’s relatively early death early in the book.  From there, we begin to learn more about their five other half-siblings by their damaged, dangerously unfit mother.  As Allan talks to the siblings who remained to be raised by their mother, he sees the blessing of not having been in her care and the scars of horrific abuse his siblings carry.  But he also tries to make sense of his abandonment when he was only a few months old and to solve other mysteries.  Eventually he even uncovers the identity of his birth father, a mystery to be solved with DNA testing rather than trust in what his deeply untrustworthy mother had put on the birth certificate.

Throughout this year of revelations and unravellings, he tends a shared allotment, a place of peace and renewal, where order can be imposed in small yet meaningful ways, and sense of progress and certainty grasped when all else seems lost.  He also has a holiday home in his wife’s native Denmark to retreat to, a place for family and more time in nature, for being himself.  In a life where identity has not come easily, where his name has been changed repeatedly as pieces of his identity shifted, it is in these natural landscapes that he knows himself best.

I don’t know if I would have picked this up if I had known how dark it would become but I’m thankful to have read it.  It is beautifully and powerfully told and makes me more thankful than ever for the luck of being born to a happy, loving, safe family.

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