Thursday, 7 September 2017

Books for the Summer – A Retrospective

by Chris Williamson

Having neglected reading (particularly fiction) for most of the 14 years since my GCSE in English Literature I decided summer 2017 was the time to start again. For once my holidays were a little more sedate (although I couldn’t be kept away from the mountains for long) and gave me the chance to fulfil a target to read 10 books over the summer. I didn’t quite make it, but I did enjoy:

East West Street by Philippe Sands
An enthralling tale of the people of the town of Lvov, Lemburg or Lwów depending on the era in question, and how the city links to both the author’s family as well as those who fought for the introduction of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity into legal lexicon. I was fascinated by the history involved in the German occupation of Poland and in particular Hans Frank – ‘The Butcher of Poland’. The war in the East was never mentioned in my sparse history lessons on the subject, save obligatory mentions of Auschwitz and Treblinka, and a visit to Krakow in the summer complemented the book perfectly. It is a fantastic memoir that shows the importance of knowing your history.

No Picnic on Mount Kenya – by Felice Benuzzi
First published in the late 1940s this is a tale of freedom. From his prisoner of war camp Benuzzi sees Mount Kenya and dreams of escape. Not of total escape for he fully intends to return to the camp following a dramatic expedition up an unclimbed route on one of Africa’s toughest and highest mountains guided mostly by a picture from a cigarette packet and drawings made from the window of his cell with the most meagre of supplies available in a POW camp. An escapist tale to warm the heart of any explorer.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
I’ll be honest, a slightly odd choice, but the range of English-language literature in the Martinus bookshop in Bratislava was limited. Plus it only cost €1.50. That said, I love a good heroine in any novel, but this didn’t quite do it for me. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but the main character Hester Prynne disappointed me at every turn, in my head she was the opposite of my favourite literary heroine Tess of the d’Urbervilles – sadly my literary criticism isn’t good enough to explain why that is the case.

The Small Boat of Great Sorrows by Dan Fesperman
My favourite book of the summer. Exchanged in a Krakow Airbnb for The Scarlet Letter this tale of espionage and detective work focuses on Croatia. The Balkan War is the first overseas conflict I remember (I am just too young to remember the First Gulf War) and I was hooked by the tales of the underground movement, the intrigue, the dodgy international collaborations. The surprise, though, was that it was actually linked strongly to war crimes in the Second World War in Croatia – said by some to be so brutal that even the Nazis felt it distasteful. The war in Croatia was something I knew even less about than in Poland. This book is truly fantastic.

Worth Dying For? The Power and Politics of Flags by Tim Marshall
A book about flags and geopolitics?! This was written for me! Sadly I didn’t enjoy it as much as Marshall’s previous book on maps and geopolitics. I guess I now know where my map/flag allegiance truly lies!

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carré
I loved this book too, a classic I was ashamed to say I’d never read before. A Cold War spy thriller with double agents, love stories and intrigue throughout. Yet I longed for a happy ending – maybe I’d read too many war books by this point.

City of Thieves by David Bennioff
I obviously hadn’t learnt my lesson though. This novel, set in the Siege of Leningrad in World War II, follows the story of Lev and Kolya who aim to steal 12 eggs for the General in return for their lives. If this sounds odd, fighting for the partisan resistance, a Jewish boy playing chess with an Einsatzgruppen leader and eating the binding of books might persuade you to read this. For once, there was hope in the ending and I very much enjoyed it.

The Valley of Unknowing by Philip Sington
Another Cold War era book based in East Germany. As communism is dying, the untrusted artists and writers are watched by spies like hawks. The famed author Bruno Krug falls for a music student but has to provide a minor deception to gain her heart. Given the difficulty of maintaining lies in such a situation Bruno eventually plans an escape to the West to be with his lover Theresa forever. However, he is betrayed, but by whom? Highlighting the uncertainty, the lack of trust and never knowing who your friends are this book genuinely upset me and caused me to shed a tear or two. Whether it was the characteristics in Bruno that I see in myself, the similarity to The Lives of Others (incidentally, the best film I have ever seen that also had me choking back sobs) or the needless splitting of friends and lovers due to the regime of communism, it really affected me, sat on my own, on a beach in Guernsey trying not to weep. No book has done that since I was told to read Watership Down aged 9… I’m still getting over that.

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
A populist, right-wing demagogue plays on people’s fears and wins his way into the White House with false promises of making everyone richer and making America great again (to not coin a phrase). What is shocking is that this book was written in 1935 against a backdrop of growing fascism and communism in Europe. Rather more impressive is the predictions Lewis makes about the Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy. Should be required reading for anyone considering a career in politics.

The Descent by Thomas Dekker
 I read this over all the free time I could find during INSET days so it doesn’t quite count as holiday reading. I used to love cycling. I used to be in awe of the peloton of the Tour de France. For nearly twenty years from the early nineties I idolised the superhuman efforts of the riders battling their way over the highest mountain passes. Now I am too cynical. Every time there was renewal and cycling was clean again, it all came crashing down in doping scandal after doping scandal. The heroes all lost their capes. Thomas Dekker was a wildchild Dutch cyclist with the world at his feet. He was incredibly talented and wanted to win at all costs. However, he rode for the infamous Rabobank squad of the early noughties and indulged in fast cars, more women than he can remember and more alcohol and recreational drugs than you would think possible for a professional athlete. He also fell for the dope. This is his story of the destruction of a top young talent through lack of role models and lack of guidance and has not helped the cynic in me. Omertà reigns and continues to fascinate me.

So that’s my ten books. I also dipped in and out of Watching the English by Kate Fox when I needed some light relief from all the war stories. Still unread but hopefully next up are Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson and the Occupation trilogy by Patrick Modiano, but I think I need a break from the spies and the war books for a bit. I’m starting to think my houseplants are watching me. Maybe I’ll read a book on Chemistry instead…

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