Archive for the ‘Anna Reid’ Category

I always have fun making this list but, for the first time, it was easy as well as fun.  There was no struggling over what belong in each spot and no angst-ridden hours spent juggling the merits of one book over another in deciding which deserved to make the list.  These are, without a doubt, the ten best books I read in 2012.  They have stuck in my mind since I read them and I cannot go a day without recommending at least one of them to friends, family members, other bloggers or people I randomly meet on the street (like the woman I met at the coffeeshop on Friday.  Such are the dangers of engaging me in conversation).  Without further ado, here are ten best books I read in 2012:

Best Books of 2012 - Part 1

10. The Home-Maker (1924) – Dorothy Canfield Fisher
This is, quite rightly, one of the best-loved Persephone titles among readers.  It is a wonderfully thoughtful book about gender roles, societal pressure, and personal fulfillment and treats all of its characters – adult or child – with respect for the everyday struggles they face.

9. Two-Part Invention (1988) – Madeleine L’Engle
This book was heartbreaking, beautiful, and, above all, surprising.  It is a portrait of L’Engle’s forty year marriage written during her husband’s final illness but it is also a reflection on her faith and what religion meant in her life.  It is a highly emotional and intelligent book and I cried more tears over this than anything else I read this year.

8. The Siren Years (1974) – Charles Ritchie
No matter how many times I read this (and I have lost count at this point), it remains the best wartime diary I have ever come across.   Ritchie’s diplomatic and social connections in London exposed him to an extraordinary variety of people, from political leaders and petty bureaucrats to authors and exiled royalty.  The joy of Ritchie’s diaries comes from the meld of political details and domestic ones.  I find it just as interesting to hear about how the Canadian High Commission handled refugee claims as I do to discover what Ritchie saw on his walk through London each day on the way to work or what he talked about at lunch with Nancy Mitford.     Best Books of 2012 - Part 2

7. Leningrad (2011) – Anna Reid
I still get chills thinking about this book, which looks at what happened to those trapped in Leningrad while it was under siege during the Second World War.  It is uncomfortable and upsetting to read but so very well done.

6. The Headmistress (1944) – Angela Thirkell
Possibly the most perfectly-formed of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, The Headmistress focuses on the experiences of the Belton family during the Second World War.  Mrs Belton, the middle-aged mother of three, is one of Thirkell’s best heroines.  Her struggles to understand her adult children and to live with her constant fear for her sons broke my heart.

5. The Laskett (2003) – Roy Strong
A gardening tome that even non-gardeners would love, this book describes the evolution of Strong’s garden at his country home, The Laskett.  Though there are plenty of details about the garden’s layout and plant choices, what makes this book special are the stories Strong shares about the friends and experiences that influenced the garden’s formation.  This is a garden that clearly reflects both Strong and his wife’s personalities and experiences and it is a book that acts as a tribute to their delightfully unique lives.  Best Books of 2012 - Part 3

4. Good Evening, Mrs Craven (1999) – Mollie Panter-Downes
A wonderfully varied collection of short stories about life in England during the Second World War.  Panter-Downes’ domestic focus exactly suits my tastes as does her interest in the quiet disappointments and muted struggles faced by her characters.  There is nothing sensational about the events in these stories, making them both relatable and, to me, touching.

3. It’s Too Late Now (1939) –  A.A. Milne
2012 was the year of Milne and as much as I loved his plays, his pieces for Punch, his passionate plea for pacifism, and his light verse, it was his autobiography that gave me the most pleasure.  Looking back on the first fifty-odd years of his life, Milne joyously recalls the happy days of his childhood and, later, his determined pursuit of a writing career.  It has nothing in common with gossipy tell-alls and that is part of what I loved about it.  It is a fun book to read and I suspect Milne had even more fun writing it.

2. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907) – Elizabeth von Arnim
It has been a long time since I’ve fallen as hard for a fictional character as I did for Fräulein Rose-Marie Schmidt.  These letters, written to her erstwhile suitor Roger Anstruther, reveal a woman who is both romantic and practical, youthful and mature.  She is clever and funny and resilient and I want to be her almost as much as I want to befriend her. the-element-of-lavishness

1. The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell  (2001) – edited by Michael Steinman
I read this in January and, honestly, no other book I read this year came even close to eclipsing it in my affections.  I had never read anything by either Warner or Maxwell before and knew very little about either of them but that made no difference.  Through their letters, I got to know both of them intimately and to witness the wonderful warmth and depth of their friendship as it evolved over the decades.  While both were extraordinary writers, it is Warner’s letters I remember the best now, almost a year after I read them.  She wrote beautifully about the domestic details of her life and the letters written between the death of her partner Valentine and her own death are as good a record of aging and loss as I have ever read.

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Before reading Leningrad: Tragedy of a City Under Siege, 1941-1944 by Anna Reid, I knew nothing about the siege.  I had a vague memory from history class that it had in fact happened and, like seemingly most things involving Russia during the war, the fatalities were absurdly high.  It is a shocking and at times difficult book to read, given the epic scale of the tragedy, but it is an amazing record of what happened in the lead up to and during the almost 900 days of the siege.

The siege of Leningrad was the longest of the war and the deadliest in recorded history (approximately 750,000 civilians died).  As she begins, Reid tries to put the tragedy in context for the reader:

Other modern sieges – those of Madrid and Sarajevo – lasted longer, but none killed even a tenth as  many people.  Around thirty-five times more civilians died in Leningrad than in London’s Blitz; four times more than in the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima put together.

This is destruction on a scale I can’t even begin to process, especially given the very short time period in which most of it happen (estimates put the civilian deaths during the first winter of the siege at half a million).  Using diaries written during the siege and the memoirs of those who lived through it, Reid gives a vivid and chilling portrait of everyday life within the city as the trappings of civilization evaporated:

Over the course of three months, the city changed from something quite familiar – in outward appearance not unlike London during the Blitz – to the Goya-esque charnel house, with buildings burning unattended for days and emaciated corpses littering the streets.  For individuals the accelerating downward spiral was from relatively ‘normal’ wartime life – disruption, shortages, air raids – to helpless witness of the death by starvation of husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, and children – and for many, of course, to death itself.

Due to inept Soviet bureaucracy, the city was particularly ill-prepared to withstand a siege.  Extra food stores that could have been sent were diverted away, leaving Leningrad with only a month’s worth of rations once the siege ring closed.  But the worst blunder, as Reid sees it, was the Soviet regime’s failure to evacuate Leningrad’s civilian population when they had the chance.  636,283 civilians (including Baltic refugees) were evacuated during the two months leading up to 29 August 1941, when the last train left.  Pointedly, Reid reminds us that “this compares with 660,000 civilians evacuated from London in only a few days on Britain’s declaration of war two years earlier.”  This left almost three million civilians within the siege circle, including 400,000 children and “over 700,000 other non-working dependents.”

The winter of 1941-1942 was unusually harsh and, by the time that weather set in, most of Leningrad’s buildings no longer had running water or electricity.  The city was under heavy German shelling but starvation was the real danger.  With so little food in the city when the siege began and with poorly judged rations that saw what stores there were being handed out too quickly, the food situation became dire almost immediately.  People who worked in food processing or distribution, unsurprisingly, had the best chance of surviving: “All 713 employees of the Krupskaya sweet factory survived; so did all those at the no. 4 bakery and at a margarine manufacturer.  At the Baltika bakery, only twenty-seven out of what grew from 276 to 334 workers died, all the victims being men.”  Anywhere else, those kind of survival rates were unheard of.  Leningraders tried to extract calories from clothing, household items, anything they could find really when the rations proved insufficient but, in many cases, that was not enough to keep them alive.  The ration system was modeled on the one used in the Gulags:

Though articulated as giving to each according to his needs, in practice it tended to preserve (just) the lives of those vital to the city’s defence – soldiers and industrial workers – and condemn office workers, old people, the unemployed and children to death.

Thanks to this design, it became possible to predict the order in which the members of a family would die of starvation:

…mortality followed a clear demographic.  In January 73 per cent of fatalities were male, and 74 per cent children under five or adults aged forty or over.  By May the majority – 65 per cent – were female, and a slightly smaller majority – 59 per cent – children under five or adults aged forty or over.  Children aged ten to nineteen made up only 3 per cent of the total in the first ten days of December, but 11 per cent in May.  Within a single family, therefore, the order in which its members typically died was grandfather and infants first, grandmother and father (if not at the front) second, mother and oldest children last.

The bulk of the book focuses on what happened from June 1941, when the Germans launched their attack on Russia, to the spring of 1942, after the first devastating winter of the siege.  The diary entries from this period are terrifying, offering a glimpse into the minds of those driven mad by hunger and by their horrific surroundings.  Honestly, all the details from this period are disturbing and I am not finding it easy to think back and to recall all of the things that I found so upsetting.  It is important that they are recorded and I feel thankful for having read this book, if only because I’d otherwise have had no idea of the scale of the siege’s destruction, but it is not a comfortable book to revisit.  It is unrelentingly horrifying.

The remaining two years of the siege (it ended in February 1944) are quickly summarized in a few chapters, which felt like a bit of a relief after having survived the gruesome details of the first winter but does seem strangely unbalanced.  The following winters were much warmer, ration levels were higher, electricity and water had been restored to many buildings, and Leningrad was down to a fifth of its pre-war population (after the deaths of the first winter and successful evacuations begun in early 1942).  Such relatively comfortable conditions are no match for the drama of that first, ill-prepared winter when 500,000 civilians died.

Though Reid’s focus is on the plight of civilians within Leningrad, she provides a good balance by reminding us every so often what the armies were doing.  Intriguingly, she uses the diaries of a German officer for this, allowing us to see the Red Army through his eyes.  It is not an inspiring sight.  Armed with rifles from the 19th Century, and poorly led and chaotically disorganized after Stalin’s military purges during the 1930s, those who had volunteered to fight in the summer of 1941 were ill-prepared to meet the German tank divisions.  Being treated as cannon-fodder, it did not take long for many soldiers to become disheartened and seek a way out:

Between 16 and 22 August 1941 more than four thousand servicemen were seized as suspected deserters while trying to get to Leningrad from the front, and in some medical units, a worried political report noted, up to 50 per cent of the wounded were suspected of self-mutilation.  At Evacuation Hospital no 61, for example, out of a thousand wounded 460 had been shot in the left forearm or left hand.

Though Reid does provide these glimpses into the lives of soldiers and their activities at the front, the focus of Leningrad is firmly on the civilians trapped in the city.  It is a social history, describing the thoughts and day-to-day activities of Leningraders, but the world in which they live is almost bizarrely unrecognizable.  Death is a constant and people become numbed by the sheer number of bodies in the streets, the number of friends and family lost.  As a reader though, I was anything but numbed.  Reid has crafted an absorbing chronicle of a horrific event, filling it with amazing detail and offering a good critical analysis of the siege myths presented in Soviet-era publications.  It is a wonderful book (not to be confused with an enjoyable one) and I’m very glad to have read it.

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