This is the story of how three young women – Anka, Rachel and Priska – hid their pregnancies from Dr Josef Mengele on the ramp at Auschwitz, and went on to suffer in the concentration camps and give birth to their babies just before Liberation in April 1945. All three of those babies then met for the first time at the age of 65 and became very close because of the astonishing similarity of circumstances in which they had been born.
I’ve read several books about and by Holocaust survivors, and yet each time I read the detailed account of an individual’s experiences I feel the horror afresh. This account, brilliantly told by Wendy Holden, spares none of the terrible details; the one thing that keeps you going, as the reader, through the grotesque inhumanity of the Nazis, is the knowledge that “this story is only being told because the three women and their babies survived.”
As survivor Esther Bauer put it: “The first twenty years we couldn’t talk about it. For the next twenty years no-one wanted to hear about it. Only in the next twenty years did people start asking questions.”
When reading these books I have two immediate responses. One is to try to imagine how I would have coped with those kind of circumstances, and how I would have behaved. The second response is always to ask what this tells us about the nature of human beings, of good and evil, hope and despair.
This time, I had the following thought:
The essential requirement for “hope” seems to be “macro” thinking. For many of us, when life’s “normal” we live our little lives with our small goals. But when Force Majeure intervenes, throwing us into a survival situation – be that earthquake, tsunami, terrorist atrocity, or Nazi Holocaust – our goals shift from “micro” thinking to “macro” thinking, at the point where lives and hopes and dreams are torn apart – a shift takes place. A new goal replaces the old: to survive; or to know that your story might be known in the future. And these three women would have hoped that their as yet unborn babies would be the living embodiment of that.
It seems part of the psychological make-up of the English people to bestow power upon the wealthy and privileged; whilst at the same time depriving them of the right to privacy.
And as we’ve all recently seen in the General Election, you have to be tough to play for high stakes; winner takes all, and unsuccessful opponents lose everything.
Today’s obsession with the private lives of celebrities and those “in high places” finds its parallel in Georgian and Regency England, where the public was hungry for moral lapses among the aristocracy. This fascinating and scrupulously researched book shines a spotlight onto a universal aspect of human behaviour – but the scholarly focus is upon how eighteenth century society reacted to it, thus enriching our knowledge of the social history of the time.
Aristocratic rakes are the stuff of novels set in Regency England. One of the most striking things about the book is how intensely the opinion-makers of the time wanted to hold on to the idea of “rank co-existing with honour”, despite all evidence to the contrary. Another outstanding aspect of Susan Law’s account is the hypocrisy of the society as the popular press indulged itself in moralising and judgementalism, along with minimal respect for confidentiality, slander and libel, thus feeding a voracious appetite by the public. But I was also surprised by the disregard that the adulterous aristocrats themselves paid to covering up their tracks, and their failure to have due regard to the ominipresence of their servants. Tumbled bedclothes, two dents in the bed, and hair powder on the pillowcases seem obvious tracks to cover up!
Susan Law examines the craze of the 1790’s for printed court reports of adultery trials, which continued through to the late 1830’s with the popularity of the “Crim Con Gazette”. She examines the changes that took place up until the 1832 Great Reform Act which altered the way the nation saw itself in terms of social hierarchies – opening up “previously unthinkable possibilities for the middle class”. Certainly in the early part of the period it is very noticeable that often “cuckolded” husbands (themselves equally guilty of adultery) might be awarded huge damages and then go on to an honourable career in high office, while adulterous women were far more likely to be “sent away” in shame and have their lives ruined.
Chief among the adulterers later on of course was the Prince Regent, and I was amused to read the opinion of Theresa, sister of the Earl of Morley, who wrote in a letter “’tis dreadful to think of the open profligacy of that Monster…. we must all go to the dogs should he ever unfortunately come to the throne.”
To the non-academic reader, the most interesting parts of this book are when the author gives accounts of specific cases, such as that of Lord Ellenborough and his young wife Jane. There are among these stories accounts that will draw a variety of different responses from the reader; for as the blurb points out, the different stories are passionate, scandalous, poignant and tragic.
A fascinating insight into eighteenth century social history, with plenty of material which will give us cause to reflect upon the preoccupations of today’s Britain as well.
Metaxas is renowned as the author of a much-admired book on Dietrich Boenhoffer (published in 2011). In this new book, he turns his attention to a vitally important subject: our worldview and how it affects our perception of reality.
In the first half of the book Metaxas examines the rules by which we may determine that an event is “a miracle”.
One of his most compelling early chapters is about the miracle of life on earth. As a counterpoint to Stephen Hawking’s observation that We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average starMetaxas gives us a taster of the vast number of fine-tuned characteristics which are necessary to support life. As I read this chapter it put me in mind of one of my own favourite quotes, which comes from Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim:
This is Nature – the balance of colossal forces… the mighty Cosmos in perfect equilibrium produces – this.
Beyond this, Metaxas goes on to consider the picture of God breaking through into the natural world with miracles, like a great tree bursting through concrete. He examines the questions of God’s apparent “selectivity” – why do some people’s lives benefit from miraculous intervention, and others not?
In the second half of the book Metaxas gives accounts of miracles which happened to himself and to people he knows personally. These stories of miracles are robust and compelling. Some are disturbing, creepy and challenging. Near the end of the book he relates a 9/11 story which holds you transfixed. And he ends with a challenge both intellectual and spiritual.
I found this book thrilling, uplifting and enormously encouraging. Throughout my life there have been times when I’ve instinctively felt something to be true, without having the necessary resources of intellectual argument to lay it on the table before others. In this book, Metaxas encourages us to fully engage our minds on a subject which is far too easy to talk or think about in a “loose” or “woolly” way.
If you possibly can, find time to read this book and to consider what Metaxas says.
I understand the novel was inspired by a village girl, Boikanyo Phenyo, from the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana. The life prospects for girls born into such circumstances are limited: school till the end of primary education, get married, have five or six children, die too early. That is unless you can gain high education. This lady walked eleven miles to secondary school, and eleven miles home, every day for five years just so that she could go on to university.
“Eleven Miles” shows how adversity can, in the right circumstances, sharpen up the resolve to succeed. Through this account of the teenage years of Boi, a gifted young girl from Botswana, Greenfield provides us with a strong contrast to the “entitled” mind-set that comfortable Western culture can sometimes engender.
“Eleven Miles” shows us how one girl builds on her gifts and meets the challenges of adversity to achieve her dreams of academic and sporting excellence, The adversities she must face include having to find enough money for school fees from the earnings of numerous family members; the lack of transport for the 11 mile journey to school, meaning her only option is to go on foot; added to the necessity of having to collect water and firewood on top of this every day when she gets home from school; and all this in the context of not having enough to eat (a hunk of bread for breakfast, and the same again for lunch). In addition to these, Boi must face cruelty, injustice and tragedy, before she wins through to her prize.
Despite the inspirational quality of the story, I never really felt I understood where or how Boi had gained her phenomenal determination and focus. She clearly has a gift which can never be explained but I wished I could have had a much deeper insight into the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of her character; this would helped me feel her eventual triumph more intensely.
Despite this, the strength of the story itself shines through, and I find myself haunted by it, and the message of the book stays with me.
Do download the novel now; it’s a simple, very readable tale which I recommend to you! Half of the profits from the sale of this novel go to Boikanyo Phenyo’s project to buy a school bus for the villages of her home area.
Having received this book as a Christmas gift, substantial 375-page tome that it is, I devoured it in a few days.
I found the book utterly compelling. Hunter Davies starts by describing his search among collectors, companies and auction houses for what must surely rank among the most valuable “scruffy scraps of paper” in the world: those the Beatles first wrote their original lyrics down on. A good proportion of these got thrown away by the Beatles then disposed of by the cleaners at Abbey Road Studios but several of those which didn’t ended up in the possession of certain key individuals who wish to keep the huge value of their possessions secret.
Hunter Davies himself offered his own personal collection of handwritten lyrics to the British Library on permanent loan and they now reside in the Manuscript Room alongside the Magna Carta, Shakespeare and Wordsworth.
Alongside photos of the handwritten lyrics, some on the backs of letters and birthday cards and envelopes, Davies gives an account of how the words were chosen, and what they mean, with some intriguing memories from his own personal contacts with the Beatles and with Brian Epstein. In so doing, he tells the story of the Beatles’ lives as musicians and songwriters entirely in and through the lyrics, the way they were composed, and the way in which their writers developed personally between 1957 and 1969.
During his observations on the songs he draws out not only the intended sense of them (if there was any – and sometimes John Lennon would deliberately write nonsense to defy the intellectual analysts) but also the unconscious meanings in the words, what they reveal of their composers’ inner lives. On one occasion, referring to some of George Harrison’s lyrics, Davies observes: “Perhaps George fooled himself, harbouring a subconscious fear that he was not admitting at the time or even aware of.”
Davies also examines the way the words emerged from the Beatles’ own life experience. I found his insights into Paul McCartney and John Lennon all the more moving because a lot of those biographical details held high emotional charge for me at the time. I became a Beatles fan at an early, and very impressionable, age – too young to be allowed to go to any of their concerts. Nevertheless I was devoted to them; every detail of their lives reported in the media, I followed avidly.
But there were several things I misunderstood.For instance, by the time “Beatles For Sale” came out, the acquisition of a new Beatles LP was so precious to me, so desirable, that I would never have guessed this title emerged from the Beatles’ own feelings of almost unbearable pressure at the commercial expectations being laid upon them.
One of the most engrossing aspects of the book is Davies’ reflection on the nature of success, and upon the creative process, often erratic and uneven. For instance, he recounts journalist Kenneth Allsop encouraging John to show his feelings more in his pop lyrics, closing the gap between his literary outpourings and his pop lyrics. And writing song lyrics is comparable in one sense to writing a novel, something Davies is quite explicit about, showing the way writers may unwittingly betray attitudes never consciously intended. “Novelists in particular,” writes Davies, “often create situations on paper, out of their imagination, which then come true.”
Davies gives a sensitive and penetrating analysis of John and his angst in particular, for, as he notes, “the discovery that success is all rather hollow, that you are still alone with yourself, can of course lead to self-destruction through excess be it drink or drugs.”
On page 234 Davies notes: “This was their philosophy: you could do these things, if you really wanted. There was no need to follow the rules or be bossed around.” How I identify with that ideal. Yet the truth is that this can only really apply to creatives when they have established themselves and become successful. As Hunter Davies says, “it helped that by this time they were multi-millionaires who had already made their mark in the music business.” And they’d made their mark through following Brian Epstein’s rules and letting him boss them around.
To conclude, I found studying this book to be a very intense experience. As we see the lyrics developing from boy-girl love songs fixated with promises to “be true” into richer, profounder and often more disturbing lyrics, as we study how the Beatles’ lives became more complex and their experience of the world deepened, it’s almost like seeing a reflection of our own lives, moving on from naivety, simplicity and idealism, through all the mistakes, folly, betrayal, loss and disillusion, along with the flashes of wonder, fun, hope, and joy.
I found this account brilliantly and sometimes painfully funny. Fran addresses her subject with self-deprecating humour. I feel this short book (112 pages) should be required reading for anyone on a B. Ed. course, so that they might have a true sense of the realities of life as a schoolteacher. Although I don’t believe, of course, that any teacher would genuinely encounter all these situations in one day, and it’s clear Fran has amalgamated probably several months’ worth of experiences in one intense, highly comical day, nevertheless this does give fascinating insights into the life of a schoolteacher. I have a sense that to succeed in this profession you have to be a master of mind-games and psychological tricks; for those unskilled in this, it must be unbelievably stressful! I particularly loved Fran’s dialogues with her Scottish colleague in the staffroom, and some of the more picaresque tales in the book, including the moment when you as the reader think, “Oh no, she isn’t going to do what I think she’s going to do….” and then she does do it. Read the book to find out what that might be!
Her account of invigilation was particularly amusing; though I must admit, from my own personal experience as an occasional school invigilator, my favourite game has been to study in turn the faces, hairstyles, body-language, clothes and make-up of several students in the room, wondering about what their futures hold for them, and what mistakes they will make in their lives and whether any of them are destined to make the same mistakes that I’ve done. I have never deliberately set off down an aisle while another invigilator is heading up it in my direction, with the intention of sweeping a student’s exam paper and stationery off onto the floor. However, having read Fran’s anecdotes, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief that she has actually done the things she describes! (Or maybe there is some use of poetic licence here).
I’d love to see this kind of comic observation within the structure of a well-plotted full-length novel. I hope Fran will give us this with her next book. She may even be able to borrow from and subtly adjust some of those wonderful Gothic ideas presented by her brilliant pupils in their essays for her…
As this review might suggest, I thoroughly recommend Fran’s book to you!
It is said that only when a lesson is learned, does an issue stop recurring in your life.
And so when I read of one of history’s most outstanding controlling women, I am filled with ambivalent feelings.
Three of the strongest, most fascinating women in history – some would call them controlling, others charismatic – all lived in the most turbulent of times, and intersected each others’ lives with the highest emotional stakes.
They were Mary Queen of Scots; Elizabeth I; and Bess of Hardwick.
When I recently visited Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth in Derbyshire, I knew little of Bess of Hardwick. Now, having just finished reading Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth by Mary S. Lovell, I am fascinated by her. And I cannot read of a powerful historical figure like this without drawing parallels and making connections with this life, and my own; and the world I know and move in.
If I was to sum Bess up for those who’ve never heard of her, I’d say she was a one woman estate and property corporation, plus social and dynastic engineer. She founded several of our great aristocratic families and greatest landowners. She was strong at a time when women were oppressed, manipulated and exploited.
She was a “Tudor entrepreneur”, absorbing knowledge from each of her four husbands, and applying it practically to far greater effect than they ever did.
I felt very sorry for her fourth husband the Earl of Shrewsbury. For he was caught up between these 3 strong women: Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I & Bess of Hardwick. He ran up huge bills keeping Mary Queen of Scots captive; despite years of begging letters from him, Elizabeth I refused to pay him a penny for it; and the Earl likewise spent years refusing to pay Bess any of the allowances he’d agreed to give her before they married. And when his son broke into his bedchamber, following his death, he discovered there was indeed very little cash left in the Earl’s iron-bound coffers. In terms of liquid assets, the Earl had genuinely been run dry. No wonder the poor man ended up bitter, whining and querulous.
Early in her life, Bess was a feisty young woman who fought her corner shrewdly and relentlessly every step of the way, and made few mistakes.
Amongst her personal attributes, readers of this book will note perspicacity; vision; discernment; strategic planning; far-sightedness; a dignified and gracious bearing.
And all around her there swam those who were ruled by one or several of the following: greed, impatience, fecklessness, hot-headedness, lack of vision; lack of anger-management; lust; short-sightedness; tunnel vision.
I believe Bess succeeded because she was a wise and acute observer of human psychology, and applied it to the best practical effect throughout her life. What she did, she did with skill and balance. Where she took risks, she did so with psychology in mind. She was a master at networking, and choosing the right people to ask favours of, at the right time, in the right way.
We can all learn from her.
Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth reads like a morality tale about money, success and power.
Those who get it and keep it; those who get it and lose it; those who have a talent for letting it slip through their fingers; and the multifarious ways people with varying degrees of honour or dishonour behave around it.
Bess did make some mistakes – and one of these was her decision to hold captive her grand-daughter Arbella, who was in line to the throne, on an equal level with James I.
Bess was almost responsible for Arbella’s existence, having carefully engineered the coupling of Arbella’s parents for the very purpose of producing another heir to the throne.
But she imprisoned Arbella at Hardwick Hall, in almost the same manner as her 4th husband the Earl of Shrewsbury had tohold Mary Queen of Scots captive.
And not surprisingly, Arbella didn’t like it.
Things didn’t work out the way Bess hoped with Arbella – (which was that Arbella should become Queen of England after Elizabeth). If they had, it would have been Bess’s most triumphant achievement.
Instead Arbella’s fate was to make a forbidden marriage, to die a lonely, squalid death in the Tower, and to be written out of history.
Bess had plenty of bad luck and tragedy in her life but she always fought her corner and her personal strength brought her through.
This story reminds us, too, through the experiences of others in Bess’s social ambit, that in life there are those who do extremely well for many years, then make a massive error of judgement which ruins everything.
And there are others who spend years causing trouble and living fecklessly – who suddenly come upon a stroke of luck and find themselves in high favour.
But this can all be forfeited, once again, by poor judgement – or the intervention of fate.
All these elements of our own lives stand out in high relief against the political and social landscape of Tudor England – brutal punishment, hereditary succession, fortunes made and lost, sexual liaisons which threaten the throne, secret and fateful marriages and desperate bids for power.
A – You can in some way identify with it; you recognise it as relating to your own life experience.
And this doesn’t mean you need to have experienced exactly the same events that the novel describes: simply thatyou recognise the truth in the story from your own life.
And that goes for all genres, even fantasy or escapist fiction. Somewhere in the structure of that story you recognise Truth.
Such is Tom Di Giovanni’s debut novel “Home”.
I first met Tom at our Church (St Mark’s in Leamington Spa) where he plays guitar and occasionally leads the music group. His love of music and in particular the guitar is demonstrated in this novel.
Tom wrote “Home” during National Novel Writing Month 2007, then worked on it in between the demands of a full time job.
Edited by Tom’s father (editor, translator and author Norman Thomas Di Giovanni), the novel has now been issued in a limited edition of 35 for the author’s family and friends. I was privileged to receive a copy, and I’ve now read it.
In simple, graceful, lucid prose, Tom tells a touching story with which many would identify, a story that shows how life offers second chances, with an essentially optimistic message, that affirms we can make the right choice when life gives us a second chance.
Tom took the novel “Persuasion” and based his story on Jane Austen’s – taking it from the male point of view.
28-year-old Martin, an architect, returns to his home town (in England’s West Country) and meets again the girl who broke off their relationship 10 years before. Daisy was persuaded by friends to reject him for being younger than her. But Martin then meets 17-year-old Claire, a talented young singer-songwriter, who has a job in the local guitar shop. Tom’s description of their unfolding relationship is drawn with subtlety and a sure and delicate touch.
Though Tom set the novel in a West Country town he used elements of our own local town Leamington Spa. In particular one scene is set in “The Dell”, a local park, where he saw a girl sitting alone playing the guitar, which inspired him for his novel.
When I read the novel I felt I was reading something that was:
1. Well crafted;
2) Had a water-tight structure;
3) Had integrity in and of itself;
4) Pointed me to a universal truth I could verify from my own experience.
They say a book must have “wow!” factor to succeed. The “wow” factor of this novel lay in its power to move, its scrupulous attention to detail, and its truthfulness.
The message of the novel is:
That which you believed lost, you can later return to and find again: but only if you meet the challenges the new situation sets; and only if you apply the new insights and discernment you have gained in the intervening years. You will be tested again, and past issues may arise once more in a new disguise.
Tom hopes to find a publisher soon to take on the novel. So watch out for him!
The other day I had a conversation with a keen reader who said, “I don’t like historical novels. I’d far sooner read a history book. If I read a historical novel, I think: But how can they possibly know?”
Of course, how can Hilary Mantel possibly know? But when I’d finished “Wolf Hall”, I felt as if I’d been an insider in the world of Henry VIII. I bought the book following a friend’s recommendation. She said she found it so powerful that she couldn’t read anything else for a considerable amount of time after she’d finished it.
And certainly, reading this book changed the view I previously held of Thomas Cromwell, whose mind we are in throughout the novel. Upon reading Hilary Mantel’s account of this man, I admire him and can understand his role in relation to Henry, and his extraordinary gifts as he navigated Henry’s changing whims.
As to Henry himself… what was his prayer? That he might have a healthy, long-lived, legitimate male heir to take over the English Throne for the Tudors, and hold it strongly into the future.
I can imagine now how he must have felt each time Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn miscarried a child. He felt professionally devastated and personally anguished; frightened that he had incurred the displeasure of God; afraid that after having been in his hands the throne would go where he did not want it to go; afraid his hopes and dreams would never be fulfilled; afraid that this was God’s punishment. After all, the English Throne was his professional business, his livelihood, his calling.
Now, of course, with historical hindsight, we can see how wrong he was: wrong to have Anne Boleyn beheaded; and wrong to have various people brutally slaughtered for not agreeing with his divorce, and for not thinking the right things at the right time about religion, and for thinking he, Henry, was wrong.
But what should he have done instead, according to us with our historical hindsight? We may think he should have stuck with Anne Boleyn, forgiven her, and patiently and with forbearance lived out his life married to her.
What actually happened? Ultimately the English Throne became strong and proud under a very long reign by the child Anne Boleyn bore him – notwithstanding the fact that this monarch was a female – a monarch who became in the eyes of many then and since, Britain’s best and most famous monarch: Elizabeth I.
So we may well say that God answered Henry’s prayer – but not in the way he expected.
This philosophical rumination has been inspired by “Wolf Hall” simply because so many of us are familiar with the Tudor story – but in fact the narrative of this, the first novel in the trilogy, only goes as far as the execution of Sir Thomas More leaving the downfall of Anne Boleyn still in the future.
Perhaps the thing that most fascinated me about “Wolf Hall” is the way the reader follows through delicate, graceful, civilised conversations – gentle, balanced, measured… and then out of them comes a decision to burn someone alive, or have them hanged, drawn and quartered.
One sentence in the book stands out for me: “all that youth, beauty, grace and learning, turned to mud, grease, and charred flesh.”
Emotionally stirring, moving, shocking and instructive, what this book shows you about human nature will stay with you.
A US reviewer says: “What Juliet finds when she reaches the ranch is an oddly charismatic and dysfunctional group of people…. there are strange things happening in the commune, and when a priest shows up it further traumatizes the group… This loving and freedom-believing cult, while wonderful on the surface is a cauldron of deceit and depravity on the inside… keeps you in suspense… deals with how relationships are formed and how the smallest of happenings can shatter lives… Skillman is a deft hand at creating characters. If you are interested in people and their foibles, you will enjoy this book.” Read the rest of the review on www.amazon.com.