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I picked up Prague Winter by Madeleine Albright (with Bill Woodward) excited but with really no idea of what I was getting into.  I had expected a sort of memoir (the subtitle is “A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948”) but the book is actually a history with personal elements, not just of the very fascinating years from 1937 to 1948 but of all the years leading up to the war.  This is the introduction to Czech history that I have spent so many years searching for and it is frankly marvellous.

Albright begins the book by offering a brief outline of Czech history prior to the nineteenth century before starting to focus in on the modern circumstances that shaped the country she was born into.  Like all Czechs, she is very proud of her nation’s past achievements, concerned that foreigners might not be aware of them (or, worse, might attribute them to the country’s larger neighbours), and enjoys educating the reader:

By 1900, 80 per cent of the [Austro-Hungarian] empire’s industrial production was based in the historic Czech lands of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia.  The literacy rate was 96 percent, twice that of Hungary and higher, even, that the German.  The economy was expanding more rapidly than that of England or France.  The Czechs were leaders in rail service, coal mining, iron and steel production, chemicals, paper, textiles, glass, armaments, and industrial machinery.  Guided by the motto “In work and knowledge is our salvation”, they developed novel techniques for processing ham and fermenting beer, made a popular liquor from beets, invented a convenient way to market sugar (in cubes), introduced the assembly-line production of shoes, and were among the first to install electric rails and trams.

This is the kind of trivia most Czechs love to bestow on the uneducated masses (which is of course why I have quoted it here – I understand my duty as a half-Czech).  It is part of the national identity, the off-told tale of the industrious, cultured, democratic nation subdued by its larger brutish neighbours.  Albright makes no attempt to appear as an unbiased historian.  She talks about writing her PhD dissertation and being challenged by her professors for her idealised view of her homeland:

Over time, I became conditioned to think of my homeland as exceptional, a country filled with humane and democratic people who had struggled constantly to survive despite foreign oppression.  The nation’s finest moments had been marked by a willingness to defend itself against more powerful foes; the saddest by a failure to fight back when betrayed by supposed allies and friends.  Its purest expression could be found in the period between the two world wars, when the Czechoslovak Republic served as a model of twentieth-century democracy within an otherwise dismal Europe.

Clearly, Albright has learned more about the nuances of human behaviour since then and some of the most interesting portions of the book deal with the moral dilemmas faced during and after the war, but, in her heart, it seems Albright still believes in the popular, idealised vision of the shining Czech democracy, never more perfect or pure than under its first leader, T.G. Masaryk.  And how easy it is to romanticise those brief years of democracy, from 1918 to 1938!  What could be more dramatic than the way it was brought to an end with the Munich Conference, when the Czechs were betrayed by their allies?  No one forgets Munich.  Albright’s family (her maiden name was Korbel) spent the war in London but just because they found shelter in the UK that did not mean that anything was forgiven:

Even with Churchill now in the prime minister’s chair, the legacy of Chamberlain and appeasement was not forgotten.  My father told a story about that period.  He had been on a bus and tripped over an Englishman’s foot.  Instead of apologizing, he said, ‘I am not sorry, that is for Munich.’  Then there was the immigrants’ ironic prayer: ‘Please, O God, give the British all the strength they will need to withstand the beating they deserve.’

Albright’s own memories play almost no part in this book.  Born in 1937, she has no memories of Prague before the war (and wouldn’t have, even if she were older, since her family was living in Belgrade where her diplomat father was posted).  The Korbels spent the war in London, where Josef Korbel organized and managed BBC radio broadcasts to the Czech people back home and where he also served under Jan Masaryk in the Czech government in exile.  Albright only recalls details from the last couple of years of the war but she gives a marvellously detailed account using other sources of what was going on both in the Czech community in England and in the occupied Czech lands.  She traces the fate of her family members detained at Terezin and then killed in Poland.  She recounts the Czech resistance’s success and failures, most dramatically the blundered assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942.  She looks at the decisions involved towards the end of the war that led to the Russian forces liberating the Czech lands and establishing a foothold in the country.  She talks about the awful expulsions that went on after the war, when a vengeful nation sought to drive out all of its ethnic Germans, regardless of their alliances.  And she gives her own views on the mysterious death of Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk in 1948, officially stated as a suicide at the time by the communist government but ruled as murder in a later investigation after the Velvet Revolution.

The country that existed after 1945 was one that bore very little resemblance to the optimistic, proud nation of only a decade before.  Albright draws on her father’s writings frequently throughout the book but it was his insights into post-war Czechoslovakia that were most interesting.  He was able to understand the complexities and challenges his daughter still struggled with in her twenties, when she was receiving the critique on her starry-eyed dissertation:

In his writings, my father described a country divided among returning exiles from London and Moscow, resistance fighters, ‘sit-it-outers’, ‘comrades’ (who talked the most), and former concentration camp inmates (who said the least).  So much had happened that the sense of national solidarity had all but drained away.  Too many people had grown used to taking orders.  The Czechs who had survived the occupation resented their countrymen who had been ‘safely out of it’ in England.  Many of the exiles who had served under arms questioned the bravery of those who had remained at home.  The gulfs separating these groups, lamented my father, ‘were deep, always emotional, sometimes rational, and rarely bridgeable.’

I found every page of this book fascinating but I was truly delighted by the depth of information Albright provides.  With so much more detail, I was able to better understand some of the episodes from my own family’s history.  For example, my grandmother’s first love had been in the RAF in England during the war.  He came back after but left again in 1947.  Now I know that the Czech and Slovak military was being trained in the style of the Red Army, which meant that those men who had served with the Russian military during the war were given the most prestigious postings while the British-trained men were effectively shunned: “The Communists wanted a monopoly on wartime heroes and so redefined the London-based military as a tool of capitalist oppression.  Within a few years, the majority of the men who had fought so bravely with the RAF were either forced into exile or in jail.”  Albright’s breaking down of the criteria for dispelling ethnic Germans after the war also helped me to understand why some of my family members were exempt while others were not: my great-grandmother, an ethnic German born in Bohemia, was excused because her family had been targeted by the Nazis (her Czech husband had been killed by the Gestapo) but her two sisters, both widows of other ethnic Germans, had no such ‘proof’ of their loyalty and were so forced to reapply for citizenship, which was initially refused.

Focusing on the difficult moral choices during these eventful years, Albright adds a new and more personal dimension to the book.  Her own life story is briefly sketched over the course of the book but it is never the focus.  It is by contemplating the moral dilemmas faced by statesmen and civilians alike that she reveals more of herself to the reader.

What fascinates me – and what serves as a central theme of this book – is why we make the choices we do.  What separates us from the world we have and the kind of ethical universe envisioned by someone like Havel?  What prompts one person to act boldly in a moment of crisis and a second to seek shelter in the crowd?  Why do some people become stronger in the face of adversity while others quickly lose heart?  What separates the bully from the protector?  Is it education, spiritual belief, our parents, our friends, the circumstances of our birth, traumatic events, or more likely some combination that spells the difference?  More succinctly, do our hopes for the future hinge on a desirable unfolding of external events or some mysterious process within?

She asks the reader to ponder the complexities of responsibility and to contemplate his or her own ethical values.  It is not so that the reader can answer ‘correctly’ as to how to behave in a challenging circumstance but so that he or she can better understand the pressures that shape history and judge more fairly even the most disastrous of decisions.

I adored Prague Winter.  There is no other single English-language book out there that provides such a thorough overview and analysis of this period of Czech history and certainly not one that does it in such an engaging and approachable manner.  Trust me, I’ve been looking for over a decade.  I have read everything I could get my hands on, have grilled relatives, have absorbed any information I could find and yet still I only knew a fraction of what Albright includes here.   After I finished reading, I immediately went out and bought a copy for my aunt, who in turn leant it out to a friend as soon as she finished reading.  It is that kind of book.

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With so many books (so many) waiting to be reviewed, it is overwhelming to know where to start.  But in honour of this week’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations for the Queen, I knew just what to review today: A Magnificent Obsession by Helen Rappaport (apparently the article was deemed necessary for the North American edition – in the UK it is simply Magnificent Obsession).  As we celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s sixty years on the throne, what could be more appropriate than to consider a book about the only other British monarch to have reached that milestone?  With the sad lack of street parties or public gatherings of any kind in my corner of the Commonwealth, this (and a celebratory fruit cake baked on Saturday) will be the extent of my celebrations.

After reading Harriet, Lyn, and especially Elaine’s glowing reviews of this last year, I was thrilled when my library copy of A Magnificent Obsession finally arrived.   I started reading immediately and did not put it down until I had turned the last page.  I have always enjoyed reading about Queen Victoria, even though I have never particularly warmed to her.  From all the biographies I’ve read and especially from her correspondence with her eldest daughter Vicky, she has always struck me as self-centred, demanding, unsympathetic, and rather irresponsible.  But I adore the intelligent, disciplined Prince Albert and am endlessly fascinated by the relationship between the Queen and her consort.

Rappaport’s subtitle is Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy and the book focuses on Prince Albert’s final illness and the following ten years, from 1861 to 1871, when the Queen retreated from public life and her official duties to wallow in her grief.  Full of detail, the book offers an absorbing and frequently disturbing chronicle of a woman who, having lost the husband she loved so passionately, throws herself entirely into the theatrical act of mourning him and protecting his memory, and of the consequences that obsession had on both her family and the way the monarchy was viewed in Britain.

The book begins by outlining the extent of the sober Albert’s influence over the frivolous Victoria and the overwhelming volume of work and intense responsibility she happily passed on to him.  After a difficult beginning to their marriage, when Albert found himself frustrated by his lack of responsibilities, he slowly and steadily assumed more vital duties.  By the 1850s, having become Victoria’s chief adviser, “Albert believed that his wife, and more importantly the monarchy, could not function smoothly without his own now-essential input.”  And the Queen believed it too, cheerfully indulging in the fantasy of herself as the dear little wife reliant on her husband’s support.  But Victoria’s reliance on Albert was too complete and her demands too exhausting:

His constant sublimation of his own needs to his wife’s far more volatile emotional ones had worn him down: always putting her first, advising, reassuring, consoling, shielding her from trouble and anxiety at every turn and being the crucial stabilising force that had enabled Victoria to fulfil her duties as Queen.

These details appear in other biographies but what really struck me about Rappaport’s description of his final years, plagued by illness, fatigue and constant stress, was his loneliness.  Albert was Victoria’s all, the focus of all her passionate worship.  But for Albert, so much more intelligent and thoughtful than his wife, so much more moderate in his emotions, his wife could never been the equal companion with whom he could share his true self.  She exhausted him.  He did have a few close male friends and his dear, brilliant daughter Vicky who could provide the kind of intellectual companionship he needed but slowly he lost them too, as the friends died and his daughter married and moved to Prussia:

By the late 1850s, with the departure of his adored daughter Vicky, who married the Crown Prince of Prussia in 1858, much of Albert’s vital spark had irretrievably faded; he became increasingly stern and humourless, retreating into himself more and more.  Without real friends or close intellectual peers, or his own entourage at court, or a supportive political faction in Parliament, his only consolation was his work.  And much as he loved his wife, Albert’s attachment to her was increasingly driven by the principles of reason and duty and doing the right thing.  Victoria was fundamentally his ‘gutes Wiebchen’ – the good and loyal little wife – and mother of his children.  She gave him her all, but for a man as restless as Albert it was never enough; she was not, and never could be, his soul’s mistress.  And for Victoria it was agony; there was nothing she could do to hold back the tide of melancholy and pessimism that was engulfing her husband.

The details of Albert’s final illness (the cause of which Rappaport proposes was Crohn’s disease, not the contemporary diagnosis of typhoid fever) are fascinating – everything in this book is fascinating – but it is Rappaport’s chronicle of Victoria’s first, bizarre decade as a widow that makes this book unique.  The woman turned mourning and grief into an obsession, making it difficult for her children to lead normal, healthy lives with her demands for their companionship, the strict pageantry she demanded of mourners, and her fixation on the saintliness of her dead husband.  She isolated herself away from the public – and her government – primarily at Balmoral and devoted herself to widowhood.  She was determined to memorialise Albert so that the people of Britain would never forget his significance and – of no less importance – his moral perfection.

But while the public outpouring of grief at his death had been impressive, the public memory is short and as the years of Victoria’s self-imposed isolation dragged on, sympathy waned for the “widow of Windsor”.  By 1871, with republican sentiment on the rise as the reclusive queen continued to demand large sums for private use and the scandalous Prince of Wales ran up debts, the situation seemed dire.  The sense of tension in these chapters is a testament to Rappaport’s skill; we know that the monarchy is not going to be abolished in the 1870s, we know that Victoria still has thirty years left in her reign, we know it and yet you can’t help but feel anxious, desperate for her to take up the reigns of responsibility once more or else who knows…

This is getting repetitive but it cannot be said enough: the level of detail here is wonderful.  Rappaport’s liberal quoting of Victoria’s letters and diaries is nicely balanced with the perspectives of those affected by her grief – her children, the government, and the public.  You get a wonderful sense of both the private world of Victoria’s grief and of the ever-changing world beyond her, at first sympathetic to her loss and then, as the years went on, frustrated by her absence.  From the first page to the last (the very last, since I had a wonderful time reading the bibliography) I was delighted by this book.  It is a wonderful history that reads with the intensity of a well-plotted novel and it more than lived up to my high expectations for it.

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I had so been looking forward to A Force to Be Reckoned With: A History of the Women’s Institute by Jane Robinson but found myself surprisingly indifferent to it once I started reading.  It is a good and informative book, giving a solid overview of the group’s development over the last hundred years or so, but for me it felt like there was something missing.  Robinson does a good job of presenting the facts but it felt very dry, even though the writing style is enjoyable.

To begin with, I was perhaps irrationally irritated by Robinson’s fondness for referring to anywhere in Canada as ‘backwoods’.  We have a lot of places that can legitimately be described as backwoods, being both wooded and sparsely populated.  Generally, the places that Robinson specifically referred to as backwoods were not, being either rural agricultural communities or, in one case, a provincial capital.  This is a foolishly small thing but I found it incredibly off-putting.

The WI began in the farming community of Stoney Creek, Ontario in 1897 but it wasn’t until almost twenty years later (in 1915) that it was successfully established in the UK.  From WWI to the present, Robinson chronicles the group’s accomplishments, from the requisite jam-making and ‘Jerusalem’-singing to their advocacy for more education on contentious issues like family planning and, as soldiers returned from First World War, sexually transmitted diseases.  So much of what the WI has done from the beginning, and what makes them such an admirable group, has been about making sure women had the education and confidence to improve their quality of life – all their larger contributions spring from that:

The WI’s most significant contribution to feminism remained, and remains still, what it had been from the very beginning: to equip women with the confidence to think and speak for themselves, and to make well informed decisions for their own good and for the benefit of their families and the wider community.

But, in many ways, this felt like a very shallow history.  The WI’s accomplishments are listed off and a few of their most notable champions described but always through rose-coloured glasses.  Robinson acknowledges the challenges and conflicts faced early on when the Women’s Institute was struggling to establish itself in Britain and, for me that was probably the most fascinating part of the book, especially concerning the challenges of imposing a democratic organization on a class-conscious society.  After that, everything is generally delightful and wonderful, moving from strength to strength, creating a book that becomes (I hate to say it) dull.  The WI’s achievements, impressive though they are, are presented in such a bland, uninspiring way that I found myself thoroughly underwhelmed by even their most salacious efforts, like grannies pushing for safer working conditions for prostitutes.

Really, I think my issue with the book was its complete lack of human interest.  There are lots of facts but there are none of the anecdotes that make similar histories so fascinating.  I could not help but contrast it with the excellent How the Girl Guides Won the War by Janie Hampton, which was such an exciting and engaging read.  The organizations are not that dissimilar (and in fact have worked together, particularly during WWII) but Hampton’s vivid details and well chosen statistics made for a far more interesting history.  I would still recommend A Force to Be Reckoned With because of the excellent overview it does give of the WI and Robinson’s obvious enthusiasm for her subject.  I just wish she had gone into more depth, giving more details and stories, which would have made for a much more interesting 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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I finished reading The File by Timothy Garton Ash yesterday and just had to talk about it immediately.  It is a fascinating, bravely personal examination of the secretive, fearful culture of the GDR and the way it shaped the lives of those touched by the Stasi, be they employee, informer or, in Garton Ash’s case, subject.  After retrieving his own Stasi file once they were made available in the early 1990s, Garton Ash sets out to gauge its accuracy (comparing it against his own diaries and memories of the period) and to track down and interview those who informed on and monitored him, a particularly intriguing task for a historian who, after all, arrived in Berlin in 1978 as a student studying the city under Hitler, when German citizens had to choose whether to resist or yield to the totalitarian state of the Third Reich.  But once he arrived, he realised that the present was perhaps more interesting than the past:

I was fascinated because here, in East Germany, people were actually living those endlessly difficult choices between collaboration with and resistance to a dictatorship.  Here I could pursue the Stauffenberg/Speer question in, as it were, real time. (p. 44)

Happily, there were no sinister consequences for Garton Ash as the result of information passed on by informants.  He did not suffer at anyone’s hands and was more intrigued by why they became informants and how they’ve lived with the consequences of that decision than why they informed on him personally. 

I have never read extensively on the GDR so some of the numbers were staggering for me.  The sheer scale of the Stasi’s operations and the cooperation they received from the general population is overwhelming:

The sources the Stasi themselves considered most important were the ‘unofficial collaborators’, the IMs.  The numbers are extraordinary.  According to internal records, in 1988 – the last ‘normal’ year of the GDR – the Ministry for State Security had more than 170,000 ‘unofficial collaborators’.  Of these, some 110,000 were regular informers, while the others were involved in ‘conspiratorial’ services, such as lending their flats for secret meetings, or were simply listed as reliable contacts.  The Ministry itself had over 90,000 full-time employees, of whom less than 5,000 were in the HVA foreign intelligence wing.  Setting the total figure against the adult population in the same year, this means that about one out of every fifty adult East Germans had a direct connection with the secret police.  Allow just one dependent per person, and you’re up to one in twenty-five.  (p. 74)

The interviews with the informants, while predictably awkward, were surprising in how openly the informants talked to Garton Ash about their actions.  They all had their reasons, their rationalizations to protect themselves from their own recriminations, their own consciences, perhaps even more than Garton Ash’s.  Some began as idealists, some were hoping for improved standing and future benefits in return for their assistance, and some were being blackmailed or coerced.  To a man, their decision to inform was not a personal grudge against Garton Ash; there was no malice intended.  It was something they did for themselves, for their own reasons.    

His interviews with the more reticent former-Stasi officers are even more interesting.  Unlike the informers, these men know they ruined lives, had people killed or imprisoned for political differences that now mean nothing.  But that was their world, their job.  Some harboured doubts then and regrets now while some remained convinced that all they had done, they had done for the best.  But who is brave or foolish enough to be a dissident in a totalitarian state, when an ideological quibble could see your entire family’s future ruined?  Or worse?  Are you an evil person for protecting yourself while knowing that your organization is doing wrong, even if you aren’t personally doing anything to its victims?  Are you worse if you believe that it is not wrong but absolutely necessary, as you’ve always been told?

There is no definitive answer to those questions and never will be and Garton Ash comes away with no conclusion, just profiles of people who touched his life without him ever having known it, without, thankfully, having damaged it:

What you find here, in the files, is how deeply our conduct is influenced by our circumstances…What you find is less malice than human weakness, a vast anthology of human weakness.  And when you talk to those involved, what you find is less deliberate dishonesty then our almost infinite capacity for self-deception.

If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person.

But they were all just weak, shaped by circumstance, self-deceiving; human, all too human.  Yet the sum of all their actions was a great evil.  It’s true what people often say: we, who never faced these choices, can never know how we would have acted in their position, or would act in another dictatorship.  So who are we to condemn?  But equally, who are we to forgive?  (p. 223-224)

I think what made this so special for me, aside from just being informative, were all the personal details Garton Ash includes.  It is a memoir of his time there as a young ‘bourgeois-liberal’ (as his file described him), struggling to define his identity and career path even as much darker struggles are taking place all around him.  And it is the story of an older man looking back on the youth he once was and trying to remember and identify with him:

What the Stasi’s Lieutenant Küntzel called my ‘legends’ were in truth less cover stories than different strands of an unformed life.  Like the confused, ambitious twenty-three-year-old graduate students who now come to my rooms in Oxford to ask me for life advice, I wanted to do everything at once: to write a doctoral thesis about Berlin in the Third Reich, and a book about East Germany, and an essay about the Bauhaus, and brilliant reports for the Spectator, and probably to be George Orwell, Foreign Secretary and war hero too.  Cover stories that I told myself.

The diary reminds me of all the fumblings, the clumsiness, the pretentiousness and snobbery – and the insouciance with which I barged into other people’s lives.  Embarrassment apart, there is the sheer difficulty of reconstructing how you really thought and felt.  How much easier to do it to other people!  At times, this past self is such a stranger to m that where I have written ‘I’ in these last pages I almost feel it should be ‘he’. (p. 37)

There are delightful, lighter moments too.  How, for example, to resist the arrogant, comedic stylings of twenty-something males?

As we sat up at 1 am, drinking in the flat next to Mark’s office, the telephone rang.  Heavy breathing, then the line went dead.  Half-an-hour later, the phone rang again and a voice said: ‘I see you have a guest.’  We guessed they were bored, or simply wanted us to go to bed.  Knowing the place to be bugged, we took pleasure in loudly deploring the latest article by ‘Edward Marston’, my pseudonym in the Spectator.  ‘Did you see Eddie Marston’s latest piece, Tim?’  ‘Yes, terrible wasn’t it?  He must have been drunk again.’  I ask Frau Schulz to enquire if there is a file on this enemy of the people but, alas, the central card index has no entry under Marston, Edward.  (p. 67-68)

The File is a gripping personal history centered on great ethical questions with no clear answers.  Garton Ash’s writing is superb: thoughtful and skilled, passionate and compelling, he does a wonderful job illuminating all the players in his little story in a balanced, sympathetic way, without the reader ever forgetting that this is his story.  All this happened not that long ago, not so far away, and not to a political firebrand or revolutionary but to a twenty-something history student.  And to many others.

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This week is not going well.  There are various things going on at work (can you call it ‘at work’ when you work from home?) that are frustrating me to no end.  One moment I want to cry, the next to yell.  Yeah.  Frustrated is the right word.  Basically, I’m a big grouch and I hate that.  My goal in life is to be happy and helpful at all times, which can be a stretch even in the best of moods.  I cannot stretch that far this week.  Instead, I’m just doing my best to calm down each day after I finish work.  The weather has finally turned nice so I’ve been spending my afternoons and evenings going for long walks to burn off some of the stress.  If these walks should occasionally lead me past a used bookstore, so be it.

But do you know what another great way to cheer yourself up is?  By talking about great books that you’ve recently (early April is still counts as recent, right?) read, like How the Girl Guides Won the War by Janie Hampton.

In University, I wrote a very successful final paper for one of my marketing classes on how the struggling Girl Guides of Canada, in the wake of launching a ridiculous advertising campaign, needed to rebrand by returning to their roots.  Structure and sisterhood, equality and excellence are timeless ideals that have always appealed to me.  I have always loved the idea of the Girl Guides, even if my reality never quite lived up to expectations.  And this book?  This book was about everything I ever wanted to be growing up.  The Girl Guides mentioned in it, whether they survived hardship in occupied countries or did their bit on the home front, are the kinds of heroines I revered as a child.  How thrilling to be so young and so capable!  I was, and still am, the kind of person who loved to read about girls who kept calm in a crisis, administering first aid to dozens of wounded while brewing endless pots of tea and possibly baking a few hundred scones – on a campfire, of course – but I am not that person.  I like to think I am but, more than anything, I avoid drama and adventure.  I was never meant to be the heroine of an adventure story it seems. Hampton’s Guides, on the other hand, certainly were.  Just consider the Polish Guides who attended the ‘Pax Ting’ or Peace Parliament summit held of Girl Guides from 32 countries in August 1939 inHungary:

The Polish contingent understood better than anyone the threat of war, and at the last moment they altered their plans.  The night before they left forHungary, the younger Guides were replaced with First Class Rangers experienced in mountain expeditions.  They were issued with special maps which they sewed into their uniforms, so that even if they lost their haversacks they could find their way home.  If, as was thought likely, the German army invaded Poland during Pax Ting, these Guides were to return home on foot over the Carpathian mountains that separated Hungary and Poland, in small groups or alone. ‘Be prepared’ had always bee the Guides’ motto; now these girls might have to put it to the ultimate test.  Only weeks later, many of them would travel in the opposite direction, out of Poland, on even more dangerous adventures. (p. xxiii)

All the instances like that of brave, uncomplaining Guides had me tearing up throughout the book.  The Polish Guides are especially touching, from their work with the Resistance, to their role in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, to their efforts in keeping up morale in concentration camps.  I had actually heard about the role the Polish Scouts played during the war but this was the first time I had heard anything about the Guides.  Though just children themselves, the Guides there engaged in some incredibly dangerous but helpful activities:

Guides and Scouts wanted to wear their uniforms to show their allegiance, but they soon realised this was too dangerous.  In the face of the Nazi threat Guides hid their uniforms and became part of the wider Polish underground movement, using the codename ‘Clover Union’ and later ‘Be Prepared.’  In order to prevent their arrest and deportation to labour camps, the Home Nursing Council (Rada Glowna Opiekunoza) issued Guides with identity cards stating that they were their employees.  Guides then worked in daycare centres, open-air kindergartens and summer camps.  Those who completed a Red Cross course were permitted by the Germans to keep a first-aid kit and to move around during the air raids.  Doctors and nurses from hospitals including Ujazdowski Hospitaland the Central Pharmacy handed over medications and dressing materials for the Guides to hide in their homes and use to treat resistance workers. (p. 80)

And there were Guides in Japanese POW camps in China!  I love to read about life in POW camps (which seems odd and morbid when I think about it but I blame it all on early exposure to the Spielberg film The Empire of the Sun), to hear what daily life was like there for civilians, particularly children, and this more than satisfied my curiousity.  Even better, the camp was the one where missionary Eric Liddell, the Olympian immortalized in Chariots of Fire, was also interned.  All sorts of geeky interests overlapping here!  And did I mention there were Guides who were captured by pirates?  Pirates!!!  Admittedly, that turns out to be less exciting than you would think but still.  It happened.  These exotic heroines do make the Guides in theUK seem rather less glamourous, but the girls in theUK were able to contribute to the war effort in valuable and meaningful ways.  And what did they do?  What didn’t they do?:

They built emergency ovens from the bricks of bombed houses.  They grew food on company allotments, and knitted for England.  They became the embodiment of the Home Front spirit, digging shelters and providing first-aid.  All overBritain, Guides held bazaars and pushed wooden two-wheeled trek carts around the streets, collecting jam jars and newspapers for recycling.  In one week in 1940 they raised ₤50,000 to buy ambulances and a life boat which saved lives at Dunkirk.

Guides painted kerbs with white paint to help people find their way around in the blackout.  They collected sphagnum moss to dress wounds.  They helped evacuated children leave cities, and helped to care for them when they arrived in the country…(p. xvi)

I loved this book.  I was practically humming with pleasure the entire time I was reading it, so delighted and moved by the stories on each page.  There were even random tidbits of information that seemed specially dropped in just to delight my detailed-oriented self: for example, did you know that “[b]y the end of the war the General Post Office had registered thirty-nine million changes of address – for a total population of forty-seven million”?  How did Juliet Gardiner fail to pass this knowledge on to me in any of her books?

If my experience with the Guiding movement had been even half so exciting as this, I never would have quit.  These girls knew things; they were proficient and had actual skills.  From what I remember, all we had to do to get our knitting/needle work/I-really-have-no-idea-what-it-was-called badge was to present a sloppy, tiny square sample of our work.  Oh standards, how I miss you.  I think that if I’d felt I was actually mastering a skill, if I’d been learning something valuable and becoming skilled at it, if I’d felt the kind of camaraderie talked about here, I could have loved Guides.  As it was, I learned how to do a number of things rather badly and on my own. Sparks, then Brownies, then Guides was just another after school activity rather than a close-knit sisterhood.  I quit Guides after only a few weeks, put off as much by the awful uniforms of the era as anything.  Who would want to wear polyester trousers and blousy button-down shirts?  Better perhaps than today’s sweat pants or jeans but hardly appealing.  I wanted order and discipline, bravery and loyalty.  My favourite part about Guides was the handbook – so inspiring! – but absolutely nothing about my experience lived up to its promise.  I did, however, come away with some impressive sales skills after hawking countless boxes of cookies door-to-door, a skill that has proven incredibly useful in my adult life.  Far more so than, for instance, my outdoor cooking abilities.

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I am a history geek.  Most of you know this already.  I was the girl who always read her history textbooks well ahead of classes just because they were interesting.  I still have an uncertain relationship with fiction because of this obsession – while I like novels, I can never get as excited about them as I do about histories or biographies.  And few things excite me more than late-19th Century German history, which is why Dearest Vicky, Darling Fritz by John van der Kiste was so very high on my To-Be-Read list.  And it did not disappoint.

At some point in my clearly misguided youth, I developed a bit of an obsession with Vicky, the daughter of and mother to two of Europe’s most unforgettable leaders: Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm II.  Her life began so very happily, the eldest member of a close family, the darling of her inspiring father, and her marriage to a man she loved, Crown Prince Frederich of Prussia, a man who viewed her progressive father as a mentor, held all the promise of a happy future.  However, after an early marriage, life in with her husband’s family in Prussia soon proved to be very different to what she had known in England:

Life in Prussia was a shattering shock to the system.  In England she had been the second lady in the land after her mother and sovereign, and as the eldest of nine children a natural leader in the nursery.  A gifted, quick-witted learner with intellectual powers that impressed even her demanding father, she had often been told that she was far cleverer than her backward, stupid, stammering brother Bertie, heir to their mother’s throne.  Now, a conscientious, eager yet immature girl of seventeen, her position had changed overnight.  She had to take her place as the youngest of several princesses, who were almost without exception a dull, vacuous crowd, content to accept their lot as good for childbearing, prepared to fill their time with gossip and dinner parties. (p. 41)

One of the best things about the book is van der Kiste’s liberal use of Vicky’s letters to her mother.  Since Queen Victoria died only a few months before Vicky in 1901, the correspondence is remarkably complete, covering all of the major events and period in Vicky’s life.  The relationship between the two women was also surprisingly intimate, particularly after Vicky became a mother herself, making for fascinatingly detailed and honest letters between them.  Really, who needs fiction when you have material like this?  This does mean that more of the focus is on Vicky and the reactions of her family – Fritz’s dour Prussian family is described dismissively as hostile and unwelcoming, an attitude that does not change as the years pass and on which we receive little further detail or explaination.  I was a little disappointed by that: I read An Uncommon Woman, Hannah Pakula’s biography of Vicky, several years ago and so I already knew quite a lot about her.  What I was hoping for here was more information on Fritz and his family.  While van der Kiste does an excellent job of detailing their relationship, Fritz is definitely the less profiled partner, though it does sound as though he may have paled in comparison to his wife in reality, outshone by her vitality and brilliance.  

The tale of the bright, intelligent Vicky and the beleaguered but hopeful Fritz can hardly be counted as anything other than tragic.  They adored one another and had a very happy marriage but all the other aspects of their lives seemed out of their control (as seems to be the case for most Royals whose parents are gifted with long-life).  Bullied by Fritz’s father, then by Bismarck, and then by their own son, the liberal ideals both Vicky and Fritz so longed to see implemented once Fritz became emperor never came to pass.  By the time Fritz assumed the throne he was already dying of cancer of the larynx; each week of his three month reign saw him growing frailer and frailer.  What strength he had in those last months was partially put towards smuggling his personal papers out of Germany to prevent his son from finding and destroying them (which is exactly what Wilhelm attempted to do, starting only hours after his father’s death).  And we all know what happened when Wilhelm II, heir to his grandfather’s and Bismarck’s nationalist and militaristic aspirations, became emperor and how his actions altered the fate of the western world.  It is endlessly fascinating to ponder what might have been:   

When Wilhelm II is taken out the picture and Frederich III put in his place, the European scene is transformed.  There would almost certainly have been a reconciliation between Germany and France; fragile Russo-German relations, notwithstanding the Battenberg crisis, would have healed and been placed on a firmer footing; and the naval arms race, presided over by Admiral Tirpitz and Wilhelm II with such devastating effect, would surely never have happened.  (p. 260)

I say that I’m interested in Vicky and her relationship with Fritz, and I am, but I’m also fixated on her relationship to her son.  Here was this woman who believed in the promise of the future, in new ideas and in change, in broadening minds and forgetting old grudges, and yet she birthed a son who clung to old hostilities while fostering new ones.  Their relationship was distant from his earliest years but, still, she was his mother.  She was responsible for him and how do you bear that kind of pain and disappointment?  Is that what motherhood can be?  A sentence to spend the rest of your life atoning for bringing a child into the world who changed it for the worse?  Knowing that the world could have been a better place without him in it?  How far, exactly, does maternal love extend, how many sins does it excuse?

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Nella Last’s War edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming was everything other reviewers had promised it would be: eloquent, engaging, and fantastically detailed, it’s an unusually coherent and introspective diary that paints a vivid picture of one woman’s experiences during the Second World War.  For those who are not yet familiar with Last, she was a housewife in Barrow (a shipbuilding town on the Irish Sea) and, more significantly for us, a diarist for the Mass-Observation archive for almost thirty years; in addition to her wartime diaries two other volumes have been published: Nella Last’s Peace and Nella Last in the 1950s.  Indeed, it’s difficult to pick up any recent histories of wartime Britain now that do not include at least a few lines from Last!  She seems to have become the voice of the average civilian during wartime, which, for a woman who never considered herself to be clever and wasn’t particularly educated, would no doubt have amazed her:

21 November 1943: I wonder how high the pile is of letters and M.O. diaries I’ve written.  I bet it would surprise me.  I always longed to be clever and write books.  I bet I’ve written a few in the shape of letters and endless scribbles!

While I found it very difficult to like Last herself, I was always appreciative of how ably she expressed herself in her diaries and how clearly her thoughts came across.  I think I came closest to liking her at the beginning of the war when she was thinking about her younger son Cliff and what the war would mean for him:

6 September 1939: I looked at my own lad sitting with a paper, and noticed he did not turn a page often.  It all came back with a rush – the boys who set off so gaily and lightly and did not come back – and I could have screamed aloud.  I have laughed to myself sometimes, thinking what a surprise – shock too – my rather spoilt lad was to get, but it’s not funny now.  He has such a love of order and beauty, not to say cleanness, and I remember stories they used to tell of the last war, of the dirt and mud in France.

Her reflections on her neighbours and colleagues are also particularly thoughtful, illustrating the personal impacts the war had on families and how disparate and unfair those experiences could be:

19 August 1943: Two women have sat side by side for four years at the Centre, sewing at bandages.  One has lost two sons at sea – and now learns her airman son has to be ‘presumed dead.’  Her daughter had to join the WAAF.  The other one’s three sons work in the Yard – have good jobs – and the daughter of twenty-eight is ‘reserved’, since she is considered necessary as a secretary to a boss in the Yard.  I look round the big room at faces I’ve known and loved for over four years.  My heart aches and, even in that small circle, the bravery and courage, the ‘going on’ when only sons have been killed, when letters don’t come, when their boys are taught to fight like savages if they are commandoes – when they are trained and trained and trained, for bodies to endure, and to go and kill other women’s lads, to wipe all the light from other mother’s faces.

For many readers, particularly female ones, the most striking thing about this diary is Last’s growing independence and emancipation from her husband and home.  Last worked for the WVS and Red Cross during the war, and, like many housewives, found liberation from housework and wifely duties in her new commitments.  Never busier than during the war, Last gained confidence but also contempt for her husband who preferred things as they had been for the first thirty years of their marriage, as he had expected them to always be.  Instead, by the time the war ended Last was practically a new woman and her later entries mark quite a different attitude towards her husband than she exhibited at the beginning:

10 May 1945: I love my home dearly, but as a home rather than a house.  The latter can make a prison and a penance if a woman makes too much of a fetish of cleaning and polishing.  But I will not, cannot, go back to the narrowness of my husband’s ‘I don’t want anyone else’s company but yours – why do you want anyone else?’  I looked at his placid, blank face and marveled at the way he had managed so to dominate me for all our married life, at how, to avoid hurting him, I had tried to keep him in a good mood, when a smacked head would have been the best treatment.  His petulant moods only receive indifference now.  I know I speak sharply at times, I know I’m ‘not the sweet woman I used to be’ – but then I never was!  Rather was I a frayed, battered thing, with nerves kept in control by effort that at times became too much, and ‘nervous breakdowns’ were the result.  No one would ever give me one again, no one.

While I may dislike Nella herself, I loved this book and am so pleased to finally know more about the woman who keeps popping up in all my history books.  Her views on patriotism and duty while particularly frustrating were absolutely fascinating: I’m so used to reading the words of over-educated intellectuals and statesmen on whom propaganda had little effect that to glimpse its impact on those who truly listened, who followed instructions to the very letter of the law, is both surprising and thought-provoking.  Her background is so different to those of my favourite wartime diarists (Virginia Woolf, Harold Nicholson, Charles Ritchie) that it was quite the education to see events from her perspective.

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The Thirties by Juliet Gardiner is a big book, both in terms of sheer size and of material covered.  It was such an eventful decade and, not surprisingly, Gardiner’s response to it is a long, detailed book.  In many ways, what this book did best was illustrate just how quickly change can happen and how arbitrary is it to lump the disparate activities of ten eventful years together under one heading as though they were related by something other than proximity.  And that’s what I love history books based on chronology rather than themes: you get a much richer portrait of how daily life evolved over a period than if you focus on just certain social, political, or economic developments.  This is not a quick read certainly, with so much to cover and with Gardiner’s usual level of magnificent detail, but it’s always an interesting and educational one. 

Chapters eighteen (“A1 Men and Consuming Women”) and nineteen (“Holy Deadlock”) were my favourites, the first dealing with physical fitness and consumer trends, the second with the status of women, family planning, and attitudes towards homosexuals.  These were the fun, relatively light chapters after hundreds of pages detailing the plight of the working man (and, in quite some detail, woman) and the escalating political tensions across Europe (always an interesting topic, never more so than during this eventful era).  Gardiner, as usual, surprised with delightfully esoteric details on the mundane features of daily life that were certainly never covered in my school textbooks.  For example:

Mothers were simply dying in childbirth at a far greater rate in the depressed areas: poor nutrition during pregnancy meant that in the 1930s it was four times as dangerous to bear a child as it was to work down a coalmine. (p. 71)

A report in 1935 estimated that 91 per cent of boys between fourteen and eighteen years of age never engaged in any form of physical activity at all (Newcastle presented a particularly inert picture).  While boys at public schools were drilling in Officer Training Corps, playing strenuous games of rugby and springing effortlessly over vaulting horses in the gymnasium, it was rather different for other chaps.  Yet, to the disquiet of the Board of Education, officer recruits to the elite military academies of the Woolwich and Sandhurst were found to be pretty weedy too, and it was claimed that the War Office was having to review the amount of baggage a soldier could be expected to carry.  It seemed pointless to contemplate undertaking a comprehensive and cripplingly expensive military rearmament programme if the bodies required to operate the arms or drop the bombs would not be up to the task.  (p. 515)

In 1931 the average age at marriage was twenty-seven for men and twenty-five for women – though working-class couples tended to marry younger than middle-class ones.  While only 34 per cent of women between the ages of fifteen and thirty-nine were married in 1901, this had increased to 41 per cent by 1931.  (p. 554)

The Thirties covers many years and many topics – in surprising detail – and though I worried at the onset that Gardiner had been perhaps over-ambitious, I was impressed by the skillful result.  It’s vastly informative and, more importantly, entertaining!

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A bit of a catch-up/catch-all post today just to tidy up some of the odds and ends that have accumulated over the last month, books that I enjoyed but haven’t really been able to gather the energy to review at length.  So, here we are: 

Eating India by Chitrita Banerji
I never get tired of reading about India.  Histories, memoirs, novels, cookbooks…anything that educates me about this fascinating country I will try.  Here, Banerji, a Bengali-born food writer who now lives in the States, takes the reader on a culinary journey of India, introducing the specialties of each region as well as the customs and cultural influences that have shaped the gastronomic traditions of the areas.  None of the previous books I’ve read on this topic have ever gone into as much detail as Banerji did on the Portuguese influence, which was by far the most fascinating bit of the book for me.  Overall, I found it quite interesting but neither personal nor descriptive enough to be all that memorable. 

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
I can’t lie; this was a rather depressing read.  Very informative, absolutely, but super depressing.  Demick focuses on fifteen years in the lives of six North Koreans, all of whom eventually defected to South Korea.  This period saw the collapse of the Soviet Union (and the disappearance of the aid Soviet countries had been sending North Korea), the transition in leadership from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-Il, China’s shift towards capitalism, and, most importantly, the famine that plagued the country throughout the 1990s, killing an estimated two million people.  I never really connected with any of the people profiled.  What kept me reading was my interest in learning so much about such a secretive country and how quickly it went from being a Communist success story to a nation without electricity or running water: as Demick describes it “…North Korea is not an undeveloped country; it is a country that has fallen out of the developed world.”  Well-worth reading. 

Free for All by Don Borchert
Who doesn’t love reading about librarians?  This was certainly a light, fun read after the dismal prospect of life in North Korea!  As a devoted library user I’m always interested to hear more from the librarians’ perspective.  What they do in a normal day, what they think of the various users, etc.  From Borchert’s tale, I’m rather impressed by how frequently they have to interact with the police (though, given the number of times I’ve seen my own librarians call the cops, I don’t suppose I should be hugely surprised).  All in all, a pleasant read, amusing but not laugh out loud funny, an excellent afternoon’s distraction – just the sort of thing to check out from the library rather than purchase.   

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
My first Connie Willis and such fun!  Despite a rather dizzying beginning that felt more Fforde-like that Jasper Fforde’s own works, this was a genuinely pleasurable read.  It did not quite live up to all the praise that had been heaped upon it but it was a fun day’s entertainment and escape.  While I love time travel novels they can get overly clever in their mysteries, as I think happened here.  Too many different issues all intersected far too quickly and the conclusion felt a bit rushed and muddled.  Comprehensible, yes, but not as enjoyable as the rest of the novel.  I did adore the many mentions of Golden Age mystery novels though, particularly the repeated allusions to my favourite Gaudy Night.

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail
My attempt to expand my knowledge of Australian literature began with this strange novel, the story of a father who promises his beautiful daughter Ellen to the first man to name all of the hundreds of species of eucalypts on his property.  It’s a strange, dream-like novel that ably displays the art of story telling though perhaps focuses too much on the art of telling at the expense of the story itself.  Everything in this modern-day fairy tale moves slowly, achingly so, only increasing the tension felt first by the reader and then, as she comes to understand the danger, Ellen herself.  It’s a very strange but absorbing novel with a rhythm and style completely its own.

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