Archive for the ‘Persephone’ Category

For Jessie’s Persephone Readathon I wanted to share my favourite Persephones.  I’m not going to be quite as ambitious as Simon (who ranked all the Persephone books he has read) so here’s a list of my top ten favourites (so far):

10. House-Bound by Winifred Peck – It was a Persephone readathon back in 2011 that introduced me to this story of a Scottish housewife whose staid and settled life is shaken up during WWII as the rapidly changing world forces her to re-examine her life and her relationships with her family members.

9. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey – a deeply unsentimental black comedy that I read not once but twice – and loved both times.

8. It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty by Judith Viorst – I am not a poetry lover but I adore this collection of deeply domestic poems.

7. Greenery Street by Denis Mackail – Who doesn’t love this charming comic novel about a young couple’s first year of married life? I love it so much that I put together an entire list of reading recommendations based on it.

6. Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes – I have never been a lover of short stories but Panter-Downes’ collection of World War Two stories is exceptional. She covers the full range of experiences – from earnest enthusiasm to petty but sympathetically-portrayed selfishness – with brevity, humour, and intelligence.

5. The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield – I’m not really certain why Persephone chose to reissue this (it certainly wasn’t in danger of being out of print) but it’s as close to a flawless comic novel as the English language has created so I’m not going to complain!

4. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher – A perennial favourite among Persephone fans – and with good reason! I was incredibly impressed when I read this stunning novel about gender roles, personal fulfillment, and the concept of face.

3. Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge – I love this thoughtful, well-written account of one family’s progression over two decades. It is particularly strong in portraying a mature marriage and the challenges of being a parent and realising the limits of your control. It makes an interesting contrast with the much inferior Princes in the Land.

2. Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham – In 2011 when I first read this wonderful novel about a love affair between an Anglo journalist and a Jewish lawyer in 1940s Montreal, I described it as being Persephone-like in it’s tone, quality and themes. I’m so glad they agreed and published it!

1. London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes – if you want to know when my love for Persephone peaked, it was the day I heard they were reprinting this collection of Panter-Downes’ wartime journalism for the New Yorker. For me, it is “one of the finest, most perfectly observed portraits of wartime England I have ever read.”

Honourable mentions: The Shuttle, Family Roundabout, On the Other Side, Manja

Dishonourable mentions: Someone at a Distance, The Winds of Heaven, Miss Buncle’s Book, Midsummer Night in the Workhouse, The Making of a Marchioness, Guard Your Daughters

What are your favourite Persephones?

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It’s day five of Jessie’s Persephone Readathon and the suggested topic for the day is to recommend books based on Persephone titles.  Readers, there is nothing I enjoy more than making book lists.  So I decided to make three.  Humour me.

Greenery Street by Denis Mackail
One of my first Persephone reads and probably still among my favourites, Greenery Street tells the story of the first year of a marriage.  Ian and Felicity are young, optimistic, and, rare in novels (including many published by Persephone), happy.  Mackail tells their story affectionately and humorously and the end result is so delightful that P.G. Wodehouse described it as “simply terrific” and “the sort of book one wishes would go on for ever.”

So where to go from there?  The sequels – Tales from Greenery Street and Ian and Felicity – would seem the obvious choice but they are damnably difficult to track down.  Mackail’s light comedy Another Part of the Wood is easier to track down (at least in e-book form) but isn’t quite as delightful as the goings on of the Greenery Street crew.

Here are some less obvious ideas of what to read next from authors who share Mackail’s gift for humour, generally cheerful opinion of marriage, and fondness for a strong narrative voice:

  • A.A. Milne: my favourite humourist of the 1910s and 1920s, Milne was very comfortable with the domestic humour and marital conversations that make Greenery Street so delightful. He wrote charming pieces for Punch on the topic (try Once a Week and The Day’s Play) and many of his best plays are also focused on marriages and what makes them work – or not (The Dover Road, Michael and Mary, and Mr Pim Passes By).
  • P.G. Wodehouse: Wodehouse was a good friend of Mackail’s – and a much better writer. They shared a similar sense of humour and whimsey in their writing though Wodehouse’s plots are significantly more madcap than Mackail’s domestic misadventures.  Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone who smiled through Greenery Street not enjoying Wodehouse classics like Joy in the Morning, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, or Psmith in the City.
  • Angela Thirkell: here’s a contentious choice! Mackail was not fond of Thirkell, his elder sister, and particularly of her much greater success as a writer.  Poor Denis.  However, I think her humour, although more caustic than her brother’s, would appeal to lovers of Greenery Street and her clear-sighted observations definitely echo the amused narrator’s view of Ian and Felicity’s goings on.  Wild Strawberries would be a particularly good place to start.
  • Dear Octopus by Dodie Smith: for a loving depiction of a lengthy and happy marriage you need look no further than Charles and Dora, around whose 50th wedding anniversary this excellent play unfolds.

On the Other Side by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg
There are a handful of Persephones that I consider really important and this, a collection of letters written by a German mother to her adult children living abroad during World War Two, is one of them.  The social history of Germany (and the territories it occupied) during the war is one of the topics I’m most passionate about in my reading so, no surprise, I have lots of recommendations:

  • The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg: like Wolff-Mönckeberg, Bielenberg was for years a resident of free-thinking Hamburg but with a difference: she was Anglo-Irish and had only become a German citizen upon her marriage in 1934. In this fascinating memoir she tells of her wartime experiences in Germany – experiences made particularly fraught by her husband’s friendship with those involved in the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler.  An intriguing look at wartime Germany from a not-quite-outsider’s perspective with a thriller-like climax.
  • A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous: one of the most moving documents of the war, this diary of life in Berlin as the Russians invaded is a powerful account of life in a hellish place. Starvation, rape, and the final breakdown of all remaining order are calmly and chillingly chronicled.
  • Frauen by Alison Owings: a fascinatingly varied collection of interviews with twenty-nine women about their experiences of life during the Third Reich.
  • The English Air by D.E. Stevenson: Moving on to fiction, this story (one of Stevenson’s best) deals with a young German man coming to visit distant family in England in 1938, forming deep bonds with them, and reassessing his own homeland from a distance. For a book published in 1940, it is extraordinarily sympathetic towards its German protagonist and rather refreshing.
  • I Was a Stranger by John Hackett: rescued by the Dutch resistance after being badly wounded during the Battle of Arnhem, Hackett’s memoir of his time recovering in the home of three elderly Dutch sisters is beautifully told. His affection and admiration for the resistance members is extreme, understanding the great danger they placed themselves in every day as they did their work surrounded by their German occupiers.

Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson
I’m currently reading this diary of life in wartime London and, no surprise, I’m enjoying it very much.  It’s not brilliant but it’s very good.  Here are some similar reads that are even better:

  • London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes: another Persephone and, like On the Other Side, one that I class as one of their “important” publications. Chronicling the war for the American readers of the New Yorker in her bi-weekly letters from London, Panter-Downes captures the ups, the downs, and the essential uncertainly of life in wartime Britain.  Her wartime short stories (Good Evening, Mrs Craven) should also not be missed.
  • The Headmistress by Angela Thirkell: Elizabeth Bowen praised Thirkell’s attention to contemporary detail by saying “If the social historian of the future does not refer to this writer’s novels, he will not know his business” and it is particularly true of this, the best of her wartime novels.
  • Wartime and The Blitz by Juliet Gardiner: Gardiner’s detailed and highly entertaining social histories cannot be beat.
  • The Siren Years by Charles Ritchie: my favourite of all wartime diaries. Ritchie, a Canadian diplomat posted in London during the war, was a stylish writer, brilliant observer, and energetic socializer.  Come for the anecdotes about lunch with Nancy Mitford and deposed European royalty, stay for the clear-sighted and decidedly unjingoistic commentary on the diplomats and politicians running the war.
  • These Wonderful Rumours! by May Smith: happy wartime diaries are always a nice change! A schoolteacher with an active romantic life and a worklife deeply inconvenienced by evacuees, Smith’s diaries are funny and remind us that life goes on.

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Pretty as a Persephone

I have belatedly (thanks to Simon’s post yesterday) discovered there is a Persephone Readathon running from February 1st to 11th hosted by Jessie.  She has come up with a great list of day-by-day challenges and I thought I’d join for today’s theme: photogenic Persephones.  Because if there is one thing I’ve done with my Persephones, it is take photos of them (preferably flanked by colourful spring flowers).  Happy Friday, everyone!


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Back in 2011, I read Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham and absolutely adored it.  In fact, I loved it so much that it made my Best Books of 2011 list.  And the first thing I thought when reading it was how perfect a choice it would be for Persephone Books.

Well, turns out they thought the same way.  Six years later, I am delighted to say that Persphone has just reissued the book and it is now readily available for all to enjoy!  Happy reading!

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hetty-dorvalMy first choice for this week’s 1947 Club was a patriotic one: Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson.  It has the honour of being the only Canadian novel so far to be reissued by Persephone books and has sat unread on my bookshelf for a shamefully long time.

The novella begins with the arrival of a beautiful and alluring young woman, Hetty Dorval, into the small town of Lytton, British Columbia, where twelve-year old Frances “Frankie” Burnaby lives on a nearby ranch with her parents.  For Frankie, Hetty is exotic – as is any new arrival in a small town – and endlessly fascinating.  When Hetty befriends her, it seems both wonderful to be acknowledged by such a person and uncomfortable, as Frankie is upset by Hetty’s request that she keep their visits a secret from everyone, including her parents, lest the locals view that as an invitation to come visit her too.  “Under a novel spell of beauty and singing and the excitement of a charm that was new”, Frankie agrees to keep the secret though, inevitably, it comes out.  And then her parents share with her the reason she cannot continue to see Hetty:

He found it difficult, I could see, to explain to me about ‘a woman of no reputation’. (‘Oh,’ I thought, sitting still and discreet like a bird that is alarmed, ‘I know, like Nella that went to stay with that rancher, and that woman with the funny hair!’ – we children just naturally heard and knew these things) and I learned that Hetty was ‘a woman of no reputation’.  Father stopped short there.  Apparently he could have said more.  In my own mind, seeing Hetty’s pure profile and her gentle smile, I said to myself that Father couldn’t have believed these things if he had seen her himself.  But a sick surprised feeling told me it might be true.

Frankie turns into quite the traveller as she ages, going first to a small boarding school in Vancouver (where her dorm room has a view across Stanley Park, which would be absolutely lovely), before crossing the Atlantic to attend school in England, followed by some time in Paris.  Across the years and the different settings, she and Hetty Dorval run into each other time and again and with each meeting – and with each learned piece of gossip helping Frankie to compose Hetty’s tawdry romantic back-story – Frankie’s view of the woman moves farther and farther away from her childhood infatuation.  By the story’s climax, when the widowed Hetty has wrapped herself around a dear friend of Frankie’s, Frankie can only see the shallow, manipulative woman who manoeuvres all situations to her advantage and cares nothing for the feelings of anyone but herself – an attitude which leads Hetty’s devoted nanny, who has cared for her and stayed with her since childhood, to a passionate and shocking outburst.

It is a very readable book, though I could do without some of the early descriptive passages about the scenery around Lytton.  Apparently, these appeal to many other readers.  Perhaps those readers have not had to wade through quite as much second-rate CanLit as we patriotically-obliged natives, where overly described scenery that adds very little to the story is de rigueur?  Regardless, it is a minor quibble.  Hetty Dorval is charmingly subtle and elegantly structured.  A very worthy first choice for the 1947 Club!


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I finished Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple earlier this week and realised that, though this is the fourth book I have read by Whipple, I’ve yet to review any of her works on this blog.  Now, part of this is explained by my relative indifference towards her writing – why spend time discussing an author whose works I find inoffensive but generally unremarkable and unmemorable? – but the main reason has been to avoid outing myself, as I have just done in the first half of this sentence, as a Persephone lover who does not love Dorothy Whipple.

There are things I like about Whipple; chiefly, her books’ ability to sell well for Persephone Books.  She is still, last I read, their top-selling author and as I have great respect for Persephone and wish them well in all things, I am delighted when they find a consistent revenue stream.  They are publishing their eight Whipple title later this year (Because of the Lockwoods) and I hope it sells as well for them as the rest have.

That said, I also completely understand the “Whipple line”, a concept used by Virago in their selection process to weed out sub-par writing.  As someone who for years had philosophical issues with Virago, this was actually the olive branch that made me begin to warm to them (I have thawed absolutely since they began reprinting Angela Thirkell’s novels).  Whipple can spin plots that are absorbing enough to while away a few desultory hours but her melodramas offer nothing challenging or even particularly satisfying.  They may begin enjoyably – I was having great fun when I started Someone at a Distance and even mid-way through it – but I always end them feel like Whipple has disappointed me.  This was especially true of Someone at a Distance, which turned so absurd and artificial that I was livid with Whipple by the end.  She chooses histrionics every time.  While some readers obviously respond to that level of drama, I find myself sighing with disappointment and now resignation.  I’ve learned to enjoy her novels as light, flimsy soap operas (The Priory was particularly good this way) but I want well-rounded characters and more complexity – particularly from her universally-flat male characters – than she is capable of offering.

All that said, her books aren’t awful (what a resounding endorsement).  They have their place in my reading diet and for this week, suffering from jet lag and adjusting to my work schedule after two weeks of blissful holidays, she was just the thing.

Greenbanks is the home of the Ashton family.  In 1909, when the novel begins, Louisa Ashton is a matriarch in her late fifties, with a philandering husband, three adult children living at home, and another three children married and off with families of their own.  She is also a dotting grandmother to Rachel, then just four.  There are other grandchildren but they are insignificant, both to the story and Lousia, frankly.  Rachel’s mother, Letty, is the only one of Louisa’s married children who lives near Greenbanks and so the two households meet often, especially with Rachel treating Greenbanks as a second home as the years go on.  Greenbanks, after all, with her doting grandmother and the allure of complete freedom, is far more attractive than her own home, with her timid mother and small-minded, petty father.

The book follows the Ashtons from 1909 to the mid-twenties.  Maybe.  There is a jarring miscalculation or typo when the book leaps forward in time: “It was six years since the war had ended and Rachel was now seventeen a half.”  This is an impressive ability indeed to halt the aging process, since Rachel was four in 1909.  Regardless, it takes us to some post-war period.  The Ashton family is intact though reduced in numbers from their pre-war strength.  More change is afoot, though: Louisa’s youngest daughter is trying to obtain a divorce from her husband after running away with another man; Rachel, grown into a clever and determined young woman, is eager to study at a university, despite her father’s disapproval; and Letty, Rachel’s mother, is coming close to reaching a breaking point after twenty-odd years of marriage to the rigid, unimaginative Ambrose.  Louisa, now a widow, has also brought a companion to live with her at Greenbanks: Kate Barlow, who, more than twenty years before, had an affair with a married local man, bore his child, and then disappeared in disgrace.

Whipple uses the novel to chronicle the social changes in England over this period, particularly in the lives of women.  I didn’t find her approach particularly compelling but, nonetheless, there is food for thought here.  Letty’s dissatisfaction with her husband and longing for adventure cannot help but bring to mind Lotty Wilkins from The Enchanted April (and remind this reader at least how much more skilled von Arnim was than Whipple at writing about women’s internal struggles).  Rachel’s plight, if it can be called anything so dramatic, is a quest for independence through education.  When she wins that (with relative ease), she finds herself in more conventional conflict with her parents – at least her father – over her choice of future husband.  I have to admit, I was a little in sympathy with her generally unsympathetic father here, though our reasons were very different.   Kate Barlow has probably the most interesting situation, though I think Whipple is clumsily heavy-handed in her writing here.  Kate is determined to punish herself for her ‘sin’, despite the welcome extended to her by everyone at Greenbanks and in the village.  She clings to her outsider status, happy to be a martyr and to reject the friendly overtures made to her.

Louisa, placid and pleasant, is the most frustrating aspect of this book, though others don’t agree.  Rachel of Book Snob, one of Whipple’s most articulate and devoted proponents, calls Greenbanks her favourite Whipple novel and sees Louisa “a remarkable matriarch, who radiates love and devotion”.  Well, she does radiate love and devotion, but what good does that do?  Louisa is a born homemaker, delighted with domestic comforts and happiest when she is at Greenbanks with her family.  But an ability to create a pretty home and preserve jam does not necessarily make you a good parent.  Just as Louisa was content to ignore her husband’s infidelities, never mentioning them though she was aware of them from the earliest days of her marriage, she keeps her own council about her children’s choices, never thinking to discuss their lives with them, even when some counselling from a loving mother might have helped prevent years of heartache.  Two of her daughters make unhappy marriages and one son becomes more hard-hearted with each passing year, while another, her over-indulged favourite, floats aimlessly through life.  Louisa loves and worries about them all but she also leaves them all, at times disastrously, to their own devices.  There is much unhappiness among the children of Greenbanks and some of that must be laid at Louisa’s door.  Love and kindness is only part of parenting – Louisa seems to avoid all of the difficult and unpleasant but nonetheless necessary bits.

Obviously, this was not the book to turn me into an adoring Whipple fan.  That said, it had its moments, just as Whipple has her place on my bookshelf.

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on-the-other-sideToday, continuing our week of World War Two diaries, we come to one of the most exciting and original offerings in the Persephone catalogue: On the Other Side: Letters to My Children From Germany, 1940-1946 by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg.

Born into a prosperous Hamburg family in 1879, Tilly (as Mathilde was known) had an upbringing suitable for the daughter of a prominent lawyer: she mastered “the gentle arts of music and painting, deportment and elocution, dancing and general social graces.”  She was sent to finishing school and in due time made her debut in Hamburg society as an accomplished and marriageable young lady.  So far, this sounds pretty standard for the daughter of the professional class and in fact identical to the upbringings of my great-grandmother and all my great-great-aunts.  But rather than settle down, Tilly convinced her parents to let her go to Italy to study singing and Italian.  There, she met and fell in love with a Dutch art historian and linguist, whom she married and had six children with (though one died in infancy).  It was an unhappy marriage (he sounds like the least-attractive Dutch person I’ve ever heard of) and the two separated during the First World War.  This history has little bearing on the book itself (aside from explaining the origins of the children to whom Tilly is writing) but I had to share it anyway.  Already her life would have made a good novel and she was just getting started.

By 1940 when these letters begin, Tilly was living in Hamburg with her second (and decidedly more stable) husband, Emil Wolff, a professor of English Language and Literature at Hamburg University.  Of her five children, only one was living in Germany.  Tightened censorship meant that she knew she could not write honestly to her children about her day-to-day life so she began these letters with the hope of sharing the truth with them once the war was over:

My beloved far-away children, everything I was not able to tell you in my letters during the first year of the war; was not allowed to say, because the censor waited only for an incautious word in order to stop a message from getting through to you, all this I will now put down on paper under the title “Letters that never reached them”; so that much later perhaps you will know what really happened, what we really felt like and why I had to reassure you repeatedly that the “organisation” was marvellous, that we were in the best of health and full of confidence. (10 October 1940)

There are hundreds of English diaries and memoirs about life during the war, countless entries and excerpts about normal life being disturbed by the Blitz and inconvenienced by rationing.  But, generally, life went on.  In fact, if you were really self-absorbed, you could pretty much act like there wasn’t even a war on.  When you start reading about life in Germany and its occupied neighbours, things get a lot more bleak.  Germans had been suffering under Hitler since 1933 but now, in addition to the fear and paranoia that had become commonplace for most citizens under the Nazis, there was the added horror of Allied bombings.  As sympathetic as I found Tilly, as much as I enjoyed her personality, it was her descriptions of these bombings and the resulting chaos that made this book so unique and memorable.

There is an excellent afterword by Christopher Beauman than summarizes the ongoing debate about the morality of the devastating Allied bombing strikes on German cities but it is Tilly’s powerful descriptions of living through the bombing raids that made the most impact on me:

I doubt whether there is a single undamaged city in the whole of Germany and most of them are sad ruins.  If one had a bird’s-eye view, one would see nothing but devastation, destroyed railway-lines, fields torn open by craters, burning factories and hordes of fleeing human beings.  A never-ending stream of fugitives is rolling from the east towards Berlin and Hamburg.  When they arrive, after days of toil in open farm carts through ice and snow, babies frozen to death at their mothers’ breasts, more bombs are showered on top of them.  It is unbelievably wretched and frightful.  (4 February 1945)

The July 1943 bombing of Hamburg was one of the largest raids of the entire war.  Over the course of several days, somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people were killed.  (To put that in perspective, about 30,000 Londoners were killed during the Blitz – but those casualties were spread out over the ten months.)  With tens of thousands more injured and buildings and infrastructure destroyed, imagine the chaos of trying to live among that:

For days on end we have had a harmlessly blue and translucent sky above us, bringing out the colour of my gloxinias, red and white, growing in superb stillness on the balcony and hiding the ruins opposite, to the right and to the left.  But in all directions death and destruction are knotted together, ready to explode.  Can anyone fathom this?  I cannot.  There is hardly a town still left intact and yet one becomes indifferent even to these atrocious ravages, which must be beyond your powers of imagination.  For days we have had no water; everything is chipped and broken and frayed; travelling is out of the question; nothing can be bought; one simply vegetates.  Life would have no purpose at all if there weren’t books and human beings one loves, whose fate one worries about day and night. (7 August 1944)

Tilly and her husband were never members of the Nazi party (though Tilly’s ex-husband, the shifty Dutch fellow, was).  Hamburg, for centuries a free city, had a history of free-thinkers and opposition to the Nazi party, something that we’ll return to later this week when I talk about Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past is Myself.  But hating the Nazis, loathing all they stand for and all they do, is a far different thing from hating Germany.  Tilly struggled with the knowledge that the defeat of Hitler would also mean a crushing blow to her homeland:

…however much we strain with every nerve of our beings towards the downfall of our government, we still mourn most deeply the fate of our poor Germany.  It is as if the final bomb hit our very soul, killing the last vestige of joy and, hope.  Our beautiful and proud Germany has been crushed, ground into the earth and smashed into ruins, while millions sacrificed their lives and all our lovely towns and art treasures were destroyed.  And all this because of one man who had a lunatic vision of being “chosen by God”. (1 May 1945)

What was almost harder for Tilly than seeing Germany’s collapse – at least with that there was some hope of a better future – was seeing how completely her Anglophile husband’s affection for the English was erased.  She too cannot hold back her anger at times:

I do understand that W [Wolff, her husband] is deeply depressed, has little hope for his own particular world.  He was so passionately devoted to Great Britain and all it stood for.  Now he is disillusioned by the limitless arrogance and the dishonesty with which they treat us, proclaiming to the whole world that only Germany could have sunk so low in such abysmal cruelty and bestiality, that they themselves are pure and beyond reproach.  And who destroyed our beautiful cities, regardless of human life, of women, children or old people?  Who poured down poisonous phosphorous during the terror raids on unfortunate fugitives, driving them like living torches into the rivers?  Who dive-bombed harmless peasants, women and children, in low-level attacks, and machine-gunned the defenceless population?  Who was it, I ask you?  We are all the same, all equally guilty, and if my entire being was not straining towards a re-union with you, life would be nothing but torture and abhorrence. (17 May 1945)

Other reviewers (like Simon and Jane) have mentioned how this book gave them a new perspective on the war.  I find that intriguing since I certainly remember reading about life in the Reich and German-occupied lands during my school days.  I wonder if this is a cultural difference; it doesn’t seem likely to be a generational one since Simon and I are the same age.  Growing up in Canada, you are just as likely to have had relatives fighting for the Germans as for the Canadians or British.  At university, I used all of my electives (a pathetically small number spread between four years of finance, accounting, and marketing courses) to studying German and history – ideally, when possible, German history.  I started this way because I wanted to understand more what my grandparents’ lives must have been like under German occupation; I continued reading because I was fascinated.  I read dozens of diaries by women like Tilly, women who hated Hitler but loved Germany, who loved the English until they saw their families and cities destroyed by bombs, who, finally, exhaustedly, just dreamed of an end and a chance to start anew.  But so many of those diaries are not in print or translated so to have one like this – written with such poise by such a sympathetic  and articulate woman – so readily available is truly a gift.

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