photo credit: Trent Bell

The issue with books in the hall is: how do you ever end up where you were going if you always have an excuse to stop and browse?


Happy International Women’s Day, everyone!  In celebration of this erratically-observed and politically-loaded holiday, I have for you a few suggestions for great books by women about women.  Rather than the usual flowers, surprise the women in your life today with a book!

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich – an obvious choice as a) I just finished this oral history of Soviet women’s experiences during WWII (and adored it) and b) Women’s Day is most associated with communist countries so it feels right to start off the list with a book about the USSR.

It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty by Judith Viorst – the ups and downs of women’s lives – in verse!

Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes by Virginia Nicholson – while their Soviet sisters had been working away in the East for years (and being celebrated for it on March 8th), Western women really exploded into the workforce in the 1950s.  This is a fascinating survey of British women’s experiences during that time.

Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers by Stephanie Levine – while women in the workforce are commonplace now in most of the world, some religious sects still preserve traditional attitudes and barriers.  This look at the lives of girls in the Hasidic community in the U.S. is upsetting, powerful, and absolutely worth reading.

Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf – Young women in the Middle East have been steadily making strides towards greater independence for years – progress Zoepf chronicled over a decade of reporting there.  In this excellent book she tells the stories of women from all over the region and how their lives are changing.

Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte and Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter – a reminder of the pressures working women face when they try to “have it all” – and far we are from achieving that dream.  Both books offer practical suggestions for improving the issues facing both women and men.

Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim – finally, on a day dedicated to women’s equality and achievement, I had to have something by von Arnim.  This one, my favourite, is an entertaining, comforting, and altogether joyous chronicle of a woman making peace with who she is.

Happy reading everyone and happy International Women’s Day!

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Linda has the Mr. Linky this week.

The Extra Woman by Joanna Scutts – I am so excited this is finally here!  Scutts’ analysis of the life and influence Marjorie Hillis, author of the 1930s bestseller Live Alone and Like It, is easily one of my most anticipated books of the year.  I love Hillis’ practical, humorous books (also including Bubbly On Your Budget – originally published as Orchids on Your Budget) and adore her blunt delivery.  I can’t wait to learn more about her.

Bears in the Streets by Lisa Dickey – Lisa Dickey travelled across Russia three times over twenty years and this book chronicles her experiences and the changes she saw in the country over that time.  I was fascinated when I heard her speak about the book last year and the glowing review at What’s Nonfiction? cinched it for me.

The Year of Less by Cait Flanders – as I mentioned on the weekend, I picked this up on Saturday from the library and immediately sped through it.  Flanders is a Canadian writer who focuses on personal finance and has for years chronicled her own financial experiences on her blog.  A few years ago she decided to try and curb her spending habits by going on a year-long shopping ban and the book is an account of what that year was like, and how she got to that place in her life.

What did you pick up this week?

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).

There are books that are important and books that are an education in and of themselves and books you never want to end.  And, best of all, there are books that are all those things.  The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich is such a book.

Between 1978 and 1983 Alexievich, the Belarusian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, travelled thousands of miles across the USSR and met with countless women to hear and record their experiences of the Second World War.  And for many people, Soviets included, these were stories they had no idea existed – stories of women who served in active combat, who knew what life was like on the battlefield, who had been shot at alongside their male comrades, and whose contributions had been largely swept aside as the official history of the Great Patriotic War took shape.  Published in 1985, Alexievich’s ground-breaking oral history of their experiences changed that and now, thanks to a new English-language translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (whose previous work made me fall in love with War and Peace), it can change the perspectives of Western readers too.

When Russia went to war against Germany in 1941, women flocked to sign up.  Time and again Alexievich records women who remember leaving their schools to go to the recruiting office or fighting against military bureaucrats who thought they were too young to be put on active duty.  They enlisted as pilots, as snipers, as members of tank squadrons, and, overwhelmingly, as surgeons, doctors, and other medical professionals.  The Soviet Union may never have become the utopia dreamed of but it had trained women to think of themselves as capable, contributing and equal members of society.  They were doctors and lawyers and engineers without the novelty factor still common in the West.  As Vera Danilovsteva, a sniper, recalled “Girls felt equal to boys; we weren’t treated differently.  On the contrary, we had heard since childhood and at school: “Girls – at the wheel of the tractors!,” “Girls – at the controls of a plane!””

But a large focus of the book is on how elusive that equality was.  By the time Alexievich came to speak to them, many had given up hope of ever getting to tell their stories.  They had been swept aside for so long and the relief at finally having someone who cares to listen was immense:

I want to speak…to speak!  To speak it all out!  Finally somebody wants to hear us.  For so many years we said nothing, even at home we said nothing.  For decades.  The first year, when I came back from the war, I talked and talked.  Nobody listened.  So I shut up…It’s good that you’ve come along.  I’ve been waiting all the while for somebody, I knew somebody would come.  Had to come.  (Natalya Ivanovna Sergeeva – Private, Nurse-aide)

Alexievich recounts their stories of life during the war: how they joined up, how they fought, what they missed, how they fell in love (or didn’t), how they longed for their families.  They all had different experiences – understandable enough given their huge numbers (more than one million women joined the military and at least half of those served in active combat roles) – but the universal memory is of how their country and their brothers-in-arms failed them when the war ended:

How did the Motherland meet us?  I can’t speak without sobbing…It was forty years ago, but my cheeks still burn.  The men said nothing, but the women…They shouted to us, “We know what you did there!  You lured our men with your young c—-!  Army whores…Military bitches…”  They insulted us in all possible ways…The Russian vocabulary is rich… (Klavdia S—va – Sniper)

They had come home wanting to be proud of their achievements, to stand next to their male comrades and be recognized for what they had done, but they also wanted to get on with their lives.  And being a soldier, it was made clear to them, was not possible if you were a proper woman:

When I put on a dress for the first time, I flooded myself with tears.  I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror.  We had spent four years in trousers.  There was no one I could tell that I had been wounded, that I had a concussion.  Try telling it, and who will give you a job then, who will marry you?  We were silent as fish.  We never acknowledged to anybody that we had been at the front.  (Valentina Pavlovna Chudaeva – Sergeant, Commander of Anti-Aircraft Artillery)

Their silence was extreme.  Some women did their best to make their past disappear, hiding their ribbons and medals away, not daring to wear them on parade days even though all the men did.  In extreme cases, women tore up their papers, making it impossible to claim the pension and benefits due to them as veterans, while others, wounded in the war and ashamed of what had happened, moved far away from anyone who knew them and did their best to hide.

But others remained happy and proud.  For those who had fought alongside their husbands it was easier to retain that part of their life with pride – if he knew and was proud, she could be too.  But it was these same husbands who could be found coaching their wives ahead of their interviews with Alexievich, reminding them of the facts of each battle – the dates, the outcomes, the soldiers lost.  This was their vision of how war should be discussed, particularly in an era when talking about your feelings and opinions about your country could get you into serious trouble, but it was not Alexievich’s – or, thankfully, the women’s.

It’s been a while since I finished the book and what has stuck with me the most were the feelings of the women as they swept through into Germany.  Western Allies remember finding a broken country, with millions of people displaced, millions homeless, and seeing some of the most gracious and elegant cities of Europe in ruins.  For the Russians it was a completely different experience.  They had marched from their own broken and ravaged country with no doubt, after Leningrad and Stalingrad, after passing the Polish death camps on their way to Berlin, of how their enemies should be treated.  But what seemed to bewilder and enrage them in equal measure was what they found in Germany.  For the Russians, after years of starvation, of living on almost nothing, sleeping “on straw, on sticks”, the level of civilization still intact in Germany floored them:

Finally, we were on their land…The first thing that struck us was the good roads.  The big farmhouses…Flowerpots, pretty curtains in the windows, even in the barns.  White tablecloths in the houses.  Expensive tableware.  Porcelain.  There I saw a washing machine for the first time…We didn’t understand why they had to fight if they lived so well.  Our people huddled in dugouts, while they had white tablecloths.  (Aglaia Borisovna Nesteruk – Sergeant, Liaison)

It is particularly feminine observation and a telling one, showing so clearly the disparity between the two enemies but also between the allies.

This was Alexievich’s first book and if she had ended there her contribution to history would have been considerable.  As it is, she has written about Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, the survivors of Chernobyl, and the disintegration of the USSR.  She picks timely, important subjects and creates books that matter both in the present and to posterity.  She has left me better informed, much moved, and feeling like I need to read all of her other words immediately.  It is the best possible feeling I can have when I finish a book.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

Through a Cottage Window, Shipley, Sussex by Charles Ginner

This is a slightly ironic post title since, thanks to the glorious weather we had yesterday, I haven’t actually done that much reading this weekend.  But I am happily dipping in and out of things in between my outdoor adventures (and sometimes during) so I thought I’d share a bit of what is making me happy this weekend.

I’ve been busy catching up on magazine and newspaper articles (perfect short reading) and really enjoyed the following:

They Just Want to Meet the Nice People – inspired by the musical “Come From Away” (which in turn is inspired by what happened when international flights were grounded in Gander, Newfoundland on September 11th), theatre-goers are booking trips to Newfoundland in search of the kindness and community-spirit depicted in the show.  Which, in Newfoundland, is frankly never too hard to find.

In Solitude What Happiness? – is loneliness the last taboo?

Fifty Ways to Avoid Readying Your Garden for Spring – now that the freakish dump of snow we received last week has finally melted and I can see my garden again I need help thinking of ways to avoid working in it.

The Misunderstood Byzantine Princess and Her Magnum Opus – really interesting piece about Anna Komnene and a recent reassessment of her place in Byzantine history

The Reason Why Comfort Food is No Longer Comforting – exploring why processed foods, though designed to make us feel comforted with their blend of salt, sugar, and fat, never actually hit the spot.

Bookwise, I am adoring The Fear and the Freedom by Keith Lowe, a history of how the Second World War helped shape the modern world.  It’s thoughtful and entertaining and extraordinarily wide-ranging.  And if I hadn’t already thought Lowe was brilliant he would have earned my undying devotion for the very first section of the book, which challenges the reader to reconsider all the archetypes we’ve been presented with (heroes, villains, victims) and think more deeply and in a more informed way.

However, it’s a rather serious topic and doesn’t suit all moods so I’ve been alternating it with some lighter reading.  I breezed through Jenny Colgan’s new novel, The Endless Beach, and finished it convinced that all the romantic pairings are doomed to give the women involved the maximum possible emotional stress.  Not a particularly satisfying end, to be honest.

What is far more satisfying has been the arrival of The Year of Less by Cait Flanders.  Flanders is a Canadian writer whose adventures in personal finance I have been following on her blog for several years now (this is the sort of exciting thing I do to feed the professional financial planner side of me you rarely see on this blog).  After having gotten a hold of her debt, she challenged herself to be more mindful of her casual spending by implementing a year-long shopping ban.  This book is a chronicle of that year but also a memoir of how she got to that place in her life.  I picked it up from the library yesterday afternoon, strolled over to a nearby park bench, and immediately started reading.  It’s not a how-to guide, rather it’s a very personal account of one woman’s relationship with her money and her spending habits.  And it’s good (which explains why it has been recommended by the NY Times and Vogue).

Finally, I have Four Gardens by Margery Sharp all ready to go.  I’ve read the beautiful prologue and can’t wait to get further into this lovely-sounding novel.

And that’s it for me now!  Off to enjoy another day.  Happy Sunday, everyone.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

credit: Town and Country

For all my European readers feeling a bit chilled by the recent winter storm, I hope you have a nice fireplace like this to curl up next to with lots of books.

Back when I was still relatively new to blogging, I used to sign up for reading challenges, partly for the fun of reading in a group setting but mostly for the joy of making ambitious reading lists.  My favourite among those challenges was the Eastern European Reading Challenge and each year that I did it I put together obscenely detailed reading lists (in 2011 and 2012).  One book that made it on to the list both years was How I Came to Know Fish by Ota Pavel – which is really just a rambling way of telling you that I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a long, long time.

Pavel was a Czech sports journalist who was diagnosed as bipolar in his mid-thirties (after he set an Austrian barn on fire while in Innsbruck covering the Olympics).  He spent much of the rest of his short life (he died of at heart attack at age 42) going in and out of hospitals but also writing.  And the best of what he wrote was this gentle, meditative, and comforting memoir of his childhood, first published in 1974.

Pavel grew up just outside of Prague in the town of Buštěhrad, the third son of a Gentile mother and a Jewish father.  His mother is a steady presence in his life but it is his father whom Pavel focuses on here – most specifically his love of fishing which he passed down to his youngest son:

Business and fishing were his two great passions.  He excelled unbelievably at both, preferred fishing, and considered it a disaster if he could not combine a sales trip for the Swedish firm of Elektrolux – for which he sold refrigerators and vacuum cleaners – with a fishing adventure.

Pavel was only eight years old when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and still a little boy when, a few years later, his two elder brother and his father were sent away to concentration camps.  Before he leaves, his father tries to teach his young son all the secrets to catching his beloved carp.  They are lessons Pavel needs to remember as the war continues on, as his mother returns home exhausted each day from forced labour, as food supplies run out:

At that time we needed delicious fat carp meat.  We had so little to eat and nothing much to barter.  We could trade carp for flour, bread and Mama’s cigarettes.  Mama and I lived alone at that time, for the rest of the family was in a concentration camp.  It was up to me to catch the carp, but it took me some time getting to know them.  I had to learn to tell the difference between their good and bad moods; I had to learn how to tell when they were hungry, when they were full, and when they felt like playing.  I had to recognize where they were likely to swim, and where I would look for them in vain.

Pavel doesn’t dwell on the tragedies of war and his family was luckier than most.  When he is caught stealing fish from local German-controlled ponds it is by a sympathetic gamekeeper.  His father and brothers all return home from their concentration camps.  And he and his mother survive the lean times.  But the horror of war is certainly there: Buštěhrad is only a few kilometers away from Lidice, the town the German’s chose to massacre in reprisal for the assassination of Himmler in 1942, and Pavel knew people there.

Mostly though, this is a memoir of wonder and childhood.  Of learning how to fish, of admiring the great fishermen in young Pavel’s life, and of finding one good thing to hold on to when everything else is turned upside down.  When the war ends, the family has earned its peace and his father chooses to spend it as he has always spent his leisure time – fishing:

Down at the river he slept most of the time, just as many fishermen do.  The water hums, the small waves roll as the clouds float by, and the wife is miles away.  The rods are set so that the fish can almost catch themselves.  Of all the sleep a man can have, the fisherman’s sleep is the sweetest.  It is the greatest of luxuries – sleep and fishing.

I really enjoyed this short, touching book but the one thing that drove me a little crazy about this edition was the complete absence of accents on the Czech words (for example, Pavel’s home of Buštěhrad becomes Bustehrad).  I know this is the lazy way of anglicizing place names but it is distracting and a little odd since the introduction to the book does retain the correct accents.  And since the book is part of Penguin’s Central European Classics series it seems even odder to be so dismissive of the accents.  However, it is a good translation and readily available so, in the grand scheme of things, I can overlook a few missing accents.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).