Looking back on the books of 2016

This is another overdue blog post, but one that I’ve really been looking forward to writing. I read 31 books in 2016, of varying quality, but overall it was a good reading year. I tried to branch out, accepting a total of eight review copies from publishers – which is a lot for me these days. Of these the highlights for me were (links go to my reviews):

The last of these is not out until May 2017, so my review will come a little closer to the time. It was offered to me by Georgina Moore at Tinder Press and I am very glad I accepted. It is a wonderful blend of crime fiction and historical fiction based on real events, coupled with multiple narrators (all unreliable) and some really beautiful writing. In case you didn’t know, it’s about Lizzie Borden, and I loved it. You can read more here. And just look at that beautiful cover!

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(image via goodreads.com)

I read a lot of history books in 2016, both fiction and non-fiction. One other historical novel I must highlight is The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. I’d been intimidated by its length (over 900 pages) but finally gave it a go earlier in the year – and I was not disappointed. It is a fictional autobiography of a former Nazi officer which the author spent five years researching, and it is one of the best novels I have ever read. Not only is it brilliantly written but it is deeply philosophical and challenging, and I greatly admire Littell for somehow managing to write it.

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I read a handful of other books about the Second World War and three of the best were written by and about women, real women of the War who faced huge challenges and trials but who remained strong and determined throughout. The first of these was Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon. The book is a compilation of her stories (recorded on tape and put together by her son) from her time living in Berlin during the War as a Jewish woman. She lived ‘underground’, in hiding, using an alias and constantly moving. It is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read. Similarly, I also read A Woman in Berlin. It is an anonymous account of the last few months of the War by a German woman living in Berlin. She is not persecuted as Jalowicz Simon was, but her whole life is destroyed and she suffers immensely. It is a harrowing but necessary book and shows the cost of the War on ordinary German people that often gets overlooked. I read these two books close together and wrote about them in one blog post (linked above) and they have really stuck with me. I think they are vital reading for anyone considering the experience of women in Europe during the Second World War.

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Another book that fits into that category is If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm. It’s a massive book so I waited until it was out in paperback before I read it, the delay making my expectations quite high – and they were all met. It is the first book dedicated to the story of Ravensbrück, the only Nazi concentration camp built specifically for women, and it was one of the most incredible books I have ever come across. I had read If This is a Man by Primo Levi so I had some idea of what to expect; but of course each story is unique, and these women all had incredible stories. Sarah Helm is to be hugely admired and respected for telling these stories, for doing the research and making sure each name is mentioned, each life is honoured in some way. I will not soon forget this book. I should note that in America the title is simply Ravensbrück.

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Towards the end of the year I wanted to branch out from history, and so I read The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson, which was just brilliant. I was already a fan of Jackson’s writing but I’d never actually read any of her short stories. Some of these are still quite fresh in my mind (least of all the title story) and I am desperate to read more. Luckily I was given two more volumes of her short stories for Christmas, so I have those to look forward to. These were Let Me Tell You and Dark Tales.

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The other highlights of my reading year, which I don’t have space to write more about here, were:

I have enjoyed reading other ‘best of 2016’ posts – it was a good year for books – and I look forward to a great 2017 filled with marvellous things to read. I am on my second book of the year at the moment and frankly I am dying to get back to it, so I shall finish here. Happy 2017!

 

Tales of Survival: A Woman in Berlin and Gone to Ground

I decided to write about both these books in one post for several reasons. They share obvious themes for one, and they complement each other in that one is written by a free German woman, an ‘ordinary citizen’, and the other is written by a Jewish German woman who spent the war in hiding. They have the same setting and certain things in common, but they are two distinct stories and that must be acknowledged and appreciated by the reader – though they can be compared.

They are very individual stories. Other women in similar circumstances will have had completely different experiences, for better or worse. In some ways these two women were lucky – they were not imprisoned or sent to the camps, and they survived the war. But they were deeply unfortunate to be Berliners at that time. They both suffered for it enormously.

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First let’s talk about A Woman in Berlin. It was written and published anonymously, though some have identified the author as journalist Marta Hillers. I’m not sure if Hillers ever confirmed this herself, and honestly it doesn’t matter too much to me. The author wanted to be anonymous, to depict a ‘snapshot’ of her experience rather than to talk about herself.

The point is that the author is an ordinary woman, but in some ways she is extraordinary. When her diary starts on 20th April 1945, she has already lived through years of war and her fiance has gone to the front. She begins her diary because she knows, somehow, that she is now living through history.

I have called her extraordinary largely because of her personal strength. She loses more or less everything and yet she does not break down or give up – she always carries on. She see people around her, some of whom she knows well, either give in to despair or be arrested and disappear. Looking back on the book it is clear she is living in a state of depression and trauma, forcing herself to carry on.

When A Woman in Berlin was first published in German in 1953, it was ‘ignored or reviled’, largely because of its depiction of rape. The author and almost every other woman in the book is raped at least once by Soviet soldiers, and no one in Germany at the time wanted to know about this. The book was published in America in 1954, and it seems that non-German audiences were more receptive. As time has passed both German and non-German readers have come to understand and see that the painful reality of what happened to these women must be acknowledged. Reading about these assaults is horrifying, but the women prove that you can live on after something like that and that your world does not have to end. This is partly because life goes on regardless, but also because it must. The author and her fellow women see that if they do not carry on things will only get worse.

It is difficult to explain what it is really like to read A Woman in Berlin; I can only say that it was one of the most intense and emotional books I have ever read. The writing is clear and pragmatic, but still lyrical and full of beauty where it can be found. Gone to Ground shares this trait – the author seeks out life and beauty where she can.

Marie Jalowicz was a German Jew living in Berlin when the War began. She carried out forced labour at the Siemens factory until 1941 when she realised that her situation was too precarious. When some post was delivered to her she told the postman that her ‘neighbour’ Marie had been deported. Unsurprised by this the postman noted that she had ‘gone east’ and that was that. Marie then took on the identity of a non-Jewish friend, including forged papers, and lived as a ‘U-boat’ – one of 1700 Jews who lived in hiding in Berlin during the War.

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Marie Jalowicz in the 1940s (image: timesofisrael.com)

Her story is incredible, and I was overawed by her bravery and resilience. She stays with friends and colleagues, acquaintances, really anyone who will take her in and not report her, and she has to move every few days and weeks. There is a huge cast of supporting characters who help her along the way, some more remarkable than others but all of them literal life-savers. Marie is forced to take risks and more than once she is just a knife’s edge away from being discovered. This makes reading Gone to Ground and intense and exciting experience, but also very emotional. Marie loses both her parents early on, and everyone she know seems to be desperate in one way or another. Too afraid to write anything down, she keeps a mental diary of things to remember and as a way to process everything that happens to her.

Her story is a mixture of life threatening adventure and the mundanity of being in hiding. She is unemployed and so must either keep busy at home (where sometimes she must stay in a single room to avoid detection) or walk the streets of Berlin from morning til night. More than once she has to repel the advances of men offering her help in return for sexual favours, though one a few occasions she decides to give in rather than face the Gestapo. Similar to the anonymous woman she realises that it is sometimes better not to fight in order to live.

At the very end of the book the Soviet soldiers arrive in Berlin. At this point she is staying with the non-Jewish friend under whose identity she has been living, and they are both raped. Marie is very matter of fact about the whole thing and does not involve her emotions, even when she hears her friend screaming. She reasons that this is still preferable to being sent to a concentration camp. Despite this it is still utterly horrifying.

Gone to Ground was put together by Marie’s son Hermann. He knew his mother had a remarkable story about the War and towards the end of her life he persuaded her to record her story on several tapes. In the Afterword he writes about this experience and how he reacted to his mother’s story. He writes that she remembers everything.

I would highly recommend these books to anyone interested in life in Berlin during the Second World War. They are unforgettable books that remind us of the experience of the War outside of the Holocaust itself, and that even those that were not persecuted by the Nazis also suffered terrible experiences.

The only thing I must say is that they are not ‘easy’ and will have an emotional toll. But they are more than worth it.

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I read the 2005 Virago paperback edition of A Woman in Berlin and the 2016 Clerkenwell Press/Serpent’s Tail paperback edition of Gone to Ground (both pictured above).

Purchase A Woman in Berlin from Foyles and Wordery.

Purchase Gone to Ground from Foyles and Wordery.

Upcoming reads and reviews

I’m focusing purely on reading at the moment, and I know it’ll be a week or so until my next review – so in the meantime I thought I’d share a ‘preview’ of what’s coming up, both in my reading and here on the blog.

I am about to finish reading the third book in the Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan – The Voyage of the Basilisk. It’s just a wonderful as the previous two and goes even deeper into the dragon science as well as Lady Trent’s life and personality. As I’ve blogged about the two previous books separately, I plan to wait until I’ve read book four (In the Labyrinth of Drakes) and then blog about that with The Voyage of the Basilisk in one post.

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Two other books I will be combining into one post are Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon and A Woman in Berlin. As you probably know these are both memoirs of being a woman, alone, in Berlin during the Second World War. They are both excellent books that made a deep impression on me – so much that I read them both a couple of months ago but still haven’t worked out how to write about them. But I am determined to do this in July.

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As I mentioned recently, I have organised my TBR into reading lists arranged by topic/type of book. This has helped me to narrow down the list and focus on what I really want to read rather than what I might one day want to read, at some point.

To this end I have purchased two books from my new reading lists, and these will be my next reads: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and Girls Will Be Girls by Emer O’Toole. These are two books that I’ve wanted to read for quite a while, and the news that The Glass Castle is being adapted into a film (starring the excellent Brie Larson) moved that one to the top of the list.

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Beyond that, I will be dipping into The Madwoman in the Attic and reading it where I can – it’s so huge that I think I could be overwhelmed by it if I read it cover to cover with no breaks! Once I’ve read the Walls and O’Toole I’ll be choosing my next book from my new reading lists – at the moment I’m leaning towards Born With Teeth by Kate Mulgrew. I loved her as Captain Janeway in Voyager and am now watching Orange is the New Black, and this reminded me that I have wanted to read her memoir for a while. Or I might choose something from my Mental Health list…

You can see my reading lists here – plenty to choose from!

My post about Gone to Ground and A Woman in Berlin will be up by the end of this week.

[All photos my own]