Archive for the ‘Eric Newby’ Category

What can we say about 2021 other than let’s not do that again?  After sailing calmly through 2020, everything blew up in 2021 for me, with chaotic work stress (I reported to four different people in 2021, two of whom both joined and left the company during that period), scary hospital visits (see work stress), apocalyptic weather, and just the constant, draining feeling that real life is on hold and when you dare to plan as though it’s not…time for new restrictions and endless cancellations.

On the plus side, I enjoyed some excellent local trips, welcomed a new nephew who shares my birthday, rejoiced to get my Covid vaccine shots, and read a truly ridiculous number of books.  Here are my ten favourites for the year:

10. River Kings (2021) – Cat Jarman
Science is so cool!  That is the only reasonable response to bioarchaeologist Jarman’s examination of Viking trading routes, tracking how an Indian bead could have come to rest in an English Viking grave.  So much of what is written (and televised) these days about the Vikings focuses only on their excursions westward, but Jarman looks at the skeletons and burial items found in the UK and finds goods – and people – who came from much further away than Scandinavia.  Isotope analysis, which allows archaeologists to identify markers for foodstuffs eaten in childhood and therefore distinguish between someone who grew up eating English wheat versus Danish wheat even when their DNA shows the same ethnic origins, thereby providing the ability to sort immigrants from locals, is clearly the coolest thing I have learned about this year.

9. Black Earth City (2002) – Charlotte Hobson
Hobson arrived on a study exchange in a provincial Russian town just as the Soviet Union was crumbling.  This elegant memoir of her time there gives a vivid portrait of what it was like to live through that bleak change – a time of great uncertainty, devastating hyperinflation, and heady youth.

8. Our Trip Around the World (2020) – Renate Belczyk
In a year with only local travel, I delighted in this memoir about two German girls who set off around the world in the 1950s.

7. Love and War in the Apennines (1971) – Eric Newby
Newby’s tale of his escape from an Italian POW camp and months on the run in the mountains, being sheltered and aided by locals (including his future wife), is told with the same sense of fun and adventure as his great travel books.  The fear and discomfort of his life as an escapee is well told, with great respect for those who risked their lives to aid him.  In delightful contrast, the book begins with his lighthearted descriptions of capture and time in prison: I will never forget his despair that fashion-conscious Italians cannot be fooled by ersatz prison-made clothing or fail to be entertained by his memory of the “temporarily expatriate members of White’s Club in captivity” who played baccarat and sent instructions to their London bankers – via the Red Cross – for the settlement of resulting debts.

6. The Unquiet Dead (2015) – Ausma Zehanat Khan
For someone who rarely reads mysteries, I not only loved this but became slightly evangelical about it, pushing it (and subsequent books in the series) onto everyone I know.  Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty, Toronto-based investigators from the Community Policing Section, are tipped off to look more closely at a man’s death from what looks like a fall.  They are soon drawn into a case of hidden identities and revenge, all centered around the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims during the Yugoslav wars.  Khan, who holds a PhD in international human rights law, bases characters’ experience on real-life events and the result is a chilling look at how the past is always with us.

5. Twilight of Democracy (2020) – Anne Applebaum
Applebaum, a Pulitzer-prize-winning historian who specializes in Eastern Europe, has been warning the world about the erosion of democracy in the West for years (and continues to do so in excellent features for The Atlantic magazine).  In this very personal book, she discusses what it has been like to see first-hand the changes in Poland (where her husband is a politician and current member of the European parliament) and notes with alarm what has been happening in America and the UK.  Her portrait of the opportunistic Boris Johnson, who she knows from their time as journalists, is particularly good.  It’s not cheerful reading but, as we head into what looks to be an especially dramatic year for democracy in America, it’s important and brilliantly done.

4. The Bell in the Lake (2018) – Lars Mytting (translated by Deborah Dawkin)
It has been so long since I read something that pulled me in a deeply and quickly as this did, immersing me in the small Norwegian village of Buntagen in 1880.  The story of dismantling the village’s stave church – including its two bells with their long history – is ultimately a tragedy as the hand of fate twists and turns.  Kai Schweigaard, the village’s energetic young pastor, is excited for a modern new church – one large enough to hold everyone and insulated enough not to freeze them to death – and to bring the villagers into the modern world.  Astrid Henke, the daughter of one of Buntagen’s prominent but struggling farming families, dreams of travel and life outside of her village but longs to preserve the sister bells in the church, donated centuries before by her family.  With the arrival of Gerhard Schönauer from Dresden to oversee the church’s transport, a love triangle emerges with the protection of the bells at its heart.  Best of all: this is the first in a trilogy, with the second book being released in translation in March 2022.

3. Americanah (2013) – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I read three books by Adichie this year and Half of a Yellow Sun, her novel about the Biafran war, could have just as easily made this list.  But Americanah edged it out, with its humour and wry observations of the lives of two young Nigerians and the lives they make – or struggle to make – in America and England and the draw they feel for their corruption-ridden homeland.  Superb.

2. A Suitable Boy (1993) – Vikram Seth
A joy of a book, which is good because, at almost 1500 pages, I spent a long time reading it.  The central story of Lata Mehra and her suitable – and unsuitable – suitors is full of Austen-esque delights; her mother could challenge Mrs Bennet with all her flutterings, but is happily made of sterner stuff when action is needed.  Lata’s romantic storyline is contrasted with the far darker one of Maan, a relation by marriage, who finds himself entangled in the heady politics of post-partition India, as well as a passionate romance and shocking crime. Judicious editing could have made this even better but I adored the massive cast of well-rounded characters, the detailed sense of time and place, and the absorbing human dramas, large and small.

1. The Great Fire (2003) – Shirley Hazzard
This artful book – Literature with a decidedly uppercase L – is so gracefully written and so thoughtfully constructed that I found it hard to read anything after it for a long time.  It tells the story of Aldred Leith, a war veteran in his early thirties, who is now writing about his experiences of travelling through China after the end of the war.  Billeted in Japan with an awful Australian officer, Leith forms a friendship with the officer’s teenage children and soon – to his discomfort – falls in love with the daughter, Helen.  This sounds very simplistic and tawdry but it is a book about people learning to live – again, in Leith’s case, or for the first time, in Helen’s – in a new world and after much loss.  The writing is extraordinarily beautiful and the story both thoughtful and compassionate.  It’s a novel that needs to be read slowly, with attention and emotion, and I’m glad I was able to give it both.

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Washing on the Line by Percy Harland Fisher

It’s a drizzly spring day here, making it perfect for getting all the indoors tasks that I’ve been avoiding while the weather has been fine off my checklist.  I’ve baked, done laundry, tidied up, and now with the house ready to tick along for another week I’ve turned to online things.  I managed to update my travel blog (with a piece about a Czech spa town I visited last autumn, if you’re interested) and, finally, I sat down and caught up with my reviews for A Century of Books.

Part of what I love about A Century of Books is the variety of things you get to read for it.  The actual writing of 100 reviews I love less, which is how we end up with short little notes instead.  Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Literary Lapses by Stephen Leacock (1910) – Leacock is so dependably funny and never more so than in this polished collection of sketches.  They were all so good it was impossible to pick a favourite, though I might lean towards the first two stories: “My Financial Career”, about feeling uncomfortable in banks, and “Lord Oxhead’s Secret”, a melodramatic spoof about a bankrupt earl.  Simon liked it so much it made his list of “50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About.”

Mackerel Sky by Helen Ashton (1930) – Definitely one to skip.  This badly done portrait of a very bad marriage between two equally self-absorbed young people was a chore to get through and worth reading only for the insights it gives into women’s working lives (hours, pay, etc) during the 1920s.  Wife Elizabeth spends her days working hard in a dress shop so her husband Gilbert can focus on his writing and so she can feel martyr-like.  As her doctor points out:

“You’ve been bullying that young husband of yours till he can’t call his soul his own, and rubbing it into him all the time how much more efficient you are than he is.  You’ve been trying to do his job as well as your own, and encouraging him to be lazy, and spoiling your own health and nerves and temper in the process.”

The impact of this behaviour on their relationship is predictably awful.  And Gilbert is no better, going off and having an affair right under her nose and expecting to receive no criticism whatsoever about it.  The most hopeful moments are when it seems like their marriage will break up.  Which it doesn’t, frustratingly.

Four Gardens by Margery Sharp (1935) – After a wonderful encounter with Sharp earlier this year (when I read The Flowering Thorn), I was keen to read more by her and Barb, my favourite Sharp expert, recommended this (one of her own favourites).  And it was absolutely lovely, telling the story of Caroline Smith from young adulthood to widowhood traced through the gardens she has made.  It is much quieter and gentler than I’ve come to expect from Sharp but no less excellent for that.  If only it were in print and readily available!

Pistols for Two by Georgette Heyer (1960) – a mildly enjoyable but extraordinarily repetitive collection of short stories from Heyer, featuring far too many people wanting to run off to Gretna Green (it’s mentioned 25 times in less than 200 pages).  It is also sadly short on Heyer’s trademark humour – and Heyer without humour is frankly pointless.  The title story, about two life-long best friends preparing to duel each other over a pointless jealousy, was my favourite in the collection while the rest have quickly faded from memory.  There was a surplus of nineteen-year old heroines with big eyes and bouncing curls so the few exceptions – a debutante’s mother oblivious to her own suitor and a thirty-something spinster chasing after a runaway niece (bound for Gretna, naturally) in the company of her one-time fiancé – stand out.  I’ll keep my copy as part of my larger Heyer collection but it’s clear the short story was not her form.  (FYI, this collection was reissued recently as Snowdrift with three additional stories added to the original collection.)

Something Wholesale by Eric Newby (1962) – after returning from a German POW camp at the end of WWII, Eric Newby was at loose ends when his parents decided he should join the family wholesale clothing business:

“It’s only a temporary measure,” they said, “until you find your feet.”  They had a touching and totally unfounded belief that I was destined for better things.  It was a temporary measure that was to last ten years.

Newby would eventually go on to become a great travel writer – perhaps not quite the “better things” his parents had planned – but learned much during his decade dealing with buyers, models, and others up, down and around the British Isles.  With a great sense of humour and obvious affection he recounts those days in this wonderful and highly enjoyable memoir.

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser (1969) – Such joy!  Such fun!  Such political incorrectness!  I knew from the very first lines that I was going to enjoy this:

Hughes got it wrong, in one important detail.  You will have read, in Tom Brown, how I was expelled from Rugby School for drunkenness, which is true enough, but when Hughes alleges that this was the result of my deliberately pouring beer on top of gin-punch, he is in error.  I knew better than to mix my drinks, even at seventeen.

Taking the villain of Tom Brown’s School Days for his (anti-)hero, Fraser sets about to show “how the Flashman of Tom Brown became the glorious Flashman with four inches in Who’s Who and grew markedly worse in the process…” and does it with great style and an even greater sense of humour.  We follow Flashman from school to the army, which tosses him from Scotland to India to the dangerous Afghan frontier.  His unapologetic selfishness and cowardice bother him not at all and, more often than not, are taken for the reverse by his obtuse comrades.  With quick wits and flexible morals, he not only survives his early adventures in Afghanistan but comes away a hero.  And so the legend and fame of Flashman begins.  His further adventures are chronicled in great detail in 11 further books and I can’t wait to read them.

Judgement Day by Penelope Lively (1980) – A difficult book to review.  On the one hand, this story of people in a small village is beautifully written and full of the clear-sighted observations I love about Lively’s work.  On the other hand, I felt remote from everyone and everything in it.  But I’m not convinced that was a bad thing.  Indeed, it echoed the way the main character views everything, including herself:

She observes herself with a certain cynicism: a woman of thirty-five, handsome in her way, charged with undirected energy, a fatalist and insufficiently charitable.  In another age, she thinks, there would have been a vocation for a woman like me; I could have been a saint, or a prostitute.

Even months after finishing it, I’m still working out my reaction to this one.

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