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!

 

In Which I Am So, So Glad I Finally Read The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

In brief, this is the story of a man who was once a Nazi officer, a story of his war; it is a fictional autobiography of an intellectual thrown into the horror of the Second World War. It is the War from ‘the other side’. But it is so, so much more than that.

Dr Max Aue is an intellectual, a successful businessman; and he used to be a Nazi officer. In his introduction he states that he intends to ‘set the record straight’ and that is why he decides to tell his story, but there may be other reasons in play. At times he is brutally frank about what he saw, or did, or was involved with, and one cannot deny the catharsis of a confession.

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The detail of the historical research in The Kindly Ones is astounding. Jonathan Littell spent five years researching and a year writing, and it shows. The real characters, that we know from history, are well rounded and chime with historical accounts (particularly Himmler and Eichmann). The depth of detail displays the bureaucracy, internal politics, and conflicts within the Nazi party that affect so much of what happens during the War. Once you have read about the grim reality of the victims, it is fascinating to gain this perspective into the Nazi regime. As in Eichmann in Jerusalem, we learn of the inner workings and day-to-day events that make the Party seem almost like a business or a manufacturer. As Max rises within the Party and is privy to more and more of its inner workings, we see that the suffering of the victims is often viewed as a byproduct of the industry the Nazis create.

Max himself is a Freudian nightmare; self-obsessed, filled with self-loathing, fixated on bodily functions and the intricacies of his family relationships. He relates his dreams, analysing them a little and leaving the rest to us. He in an intellectual dragged into a bloody war between what might be good and what might be evil, and he hates both himself and everyone else around him. He is repulsed by human suffering, but also by his own actions. It is unsurprising when he gets ill or has a mental breakdown (both happen more than once).

I could spend a lot of time and words analysing Max and his own unique brand of crazy. He is a deeply real character, a terrible and brilliant person, and you both hate him and love him, mostly out of pity. I greatly admire Littell for his commitment to his creation.

The Kindly Ones is heavy going, not only for its subject matter and the intensity of Max’s narrative, but also because it is over 900 pages long. But, if you have the interest in the history, as well as the philosophy and psychology (there is a lot of both) then it is well worth the time and effort. Like Max, it is terrible and brilliant, and crazy in its own way. My only real criticism is that it was obviously translated by an American and so there is some American phrasing, which is a bit jarring because Max is European, and I, the reader, am English. But really this is insignificant.

I can’t tell you how wonderful this book is. It is not something to be taken lightly, but it is its own kind of masterpiece.

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Originally published as Les Bienveillantes in France in 2006 by Editions Gallimard; then in English in 2009 by Chatto & Windus. I read the 2010 paperback published by Vintage (pictured above).

Buy your copy from Foyles here.

After you’ve read it I would recommend getting some background on the Wikipedia page (lots of excellent Greek mythology).

 

The Second World War: Selected Reading

Note on photos: where possible I have photographed my own books. I own the others mentioned in this post but don’t have the books with me, so have used photos from GoodReads.

 

It would be impossible to narrow down the absolute best books about the Second World War, not least because there are scores I haven’t read. So, I’m going to detail the best of what I personally have read, subjective though that may be.

So why books about the Second World War? I’m currently reading The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, and it got me thinking about the different types of books I have read about this earth-shattering period in our history. The Kindly Ones is a fictional autobiography of Max Aue, a successful businessman who was a Nazi officer in a former life. He tells his story to ‘set the record straight’ and does not spare his reader from gruesome or disturbing details. Littell spent five years researching the book, and its detail is both astounding and endlessly fascinating (however unpleasant it might sometimes be). Really it’s quite an odd sort of book, and quite unlike most of what I have read about the war. When I finish it I will tackle writing about it properly!

The other books that have stayed with me the most are listed below.

If This Is A Man by Primo Levi – I think this is essential reading for anyone who wants to know more about what it was like to live in (and survive) a Nazi concentration camp. I read this as part of a course of Literatures of Genocide at university and it remains, to me, the pinnacle of survivor testimony from this period (whether or not that’s actually the case).

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1987 Abacus books edition (which I own). Image via goodreads.com

Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning – this was read for the same course and really opened my eyes. It is the story of a Polish police battalion, made up of civilians, who became part of an Einsatzgruppe. It’s a similar principal to the Stanford prison experiment, except this is real life and it is both harrowing and entirely believable.

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2001 Penguin Books edition (which I own). Image via goodreads.com

Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt – the subtitle of this book is The Banality of Evil, and that just says it all. Eichmann was essentially a pencil pusher who wanted to further his own career, and in doing so helped put The Final Solution in motion. This is a hard-going read at times, as you’d expect, but it is most definitely worth it.

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1994 Penguin Classics edition (which I own). Image via goodreads.com

Magda by Meike Zeirvogel – this is a fictional account of the life and psyche of Magda Goebbels, and is one of the most elegant and disturbing books I have read. While not sympathetic to Magda Geobbels, this novel does try to understand her and why she became the woman she was. The beautiful writing certainly helps deal with the tragedy, and the fact that the author is German adds another layer of interest.

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2013 Salt Publishing edition

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada – I just had to include this. I read it when it was reissed by Penguin a few years ago, and it just blew me away. Though fictional it is based on a true story, and exposes some of the horror of living through the war as a German civilian who did not support the Nazis. The vivid and yet subtle writing is unbeatable.

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2009 Penguin Classics edition

Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall – this is also about the struggle to survive as a German civilian, and is told almost like one long bad dream. It is lyrical and strange at times, but this does not reduce the emotional depth of the sparse writing. I just read this and would recommend it anyone looking for a literary and less stark depiction of life during the war.

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2015 Peirene Press edition

Monsieur Le Commandant by Romain Slocombe – this just blew me away. It is framed as a letter from a French citizen to the Nazi Commandant in his hometown in Occupied France. He tells his life story and explores his views about France’s relationship with Germany, as well as his own personal struggles. It is a fascinating and terrifying book that I highly recommend. My review is here.

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2014 Gallic Books edition

 

There are an awful lot more books on the War that I would like to read, some of which I already own, and some which I don’t. It is a rather long list so I’m not going to include it here, but might save it for a future post. I’m sure some of the books on the list will be reviewed/written about at some point soon! Here are the books I currently own that are next on the reading list:

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I’d love to hear some more recommendations for literature of this period – what would you suggest?