Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The list: number 19

Als Ich Deutsche War by Christabel Bielenberg

My grandfather was my hero.  He didn't do anything that would be considered as heroic, like save 
lives or invent a cure for a dread disease or anything like that.  But to me he was wonderful.  Rooting around in my mother's papers (when I was about ten - everyone did that, right?) I found a card with 
my grandfather's name on it ... It was dated 1915, at the start of WWI, and said 'Discharged from the army.  Unfit to be a soldier.'  Well, I was shocked and immediately had to confess to my mother that I had been looking through her things!  The explanation - that my grandfather was only 15 at the time and had lied about his age - only made me worship him even more!  It was worth the telling off for being nosey.  
In WWII he was a miner and therefore didn't fight, but after the war was over he went to Germany for 
a couple of years and lived in Berlin during the blockade.  He learnt German very quickly and, apparently, when I was born decided I would be a linguist!  He was always telling me tales about 
his German friends and this my fascination with Germany began.  
Both my grandparents taught themselves Russian.  (They were communists.) I can remember seeing notebooks filled with incomprehensible scribbles. There were three columns: Russian Cyrillic, Welsh, English.  So when I was at Grammar School, I was of course learning Welsh and French and Latin, which were all compulsory; then, thanks to my grandfather, German and Russian.  
But back to the book... I'm really interested in German history, especially of the Second World War. And I really can speak and read German but always need practice.  So I read the book in German.  It's about a British lady who marries a German, lives in Germany, and then when the war breaks out finds herself caught between the two countries and cultures.  Her husband was one of the brains behind the  assassination attempt on Hitler.  This book charts their lives through the war, and how an English lady coped as an alien, trying to give her children a normal anti-Nazi life in a war-torn country.  
At the opposite extreme I have just read A Nazi in the Family by Derek Niemann, another fascinating insight into those times.

Monday, 27 April 2015

The list: number 20

Martha Quest by Doris Lessing.  

I was first introduced to the work of Doris Lessing when I was 25.  I read a review, in The Times, of 
The Summer Before the Dark.  I went and bought it immediately.  Thus was I led to the life (and the 
five books about) Martha Quest.  Teenage angst, the uncertainty of life in Southern Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe, unsatisfactory marriage, war, prejudice, uprooting from home to live in a foreign country, mental breakdowns, women's rights.... All human life is there. 

I have read all her books.  She was a genius (Nobel Prize for literature), and she influenced me greatly, when I was an impressionable young thing looking for role models.

Maybe she's a good choice for our Book Club.  Old fashioned now, I suppose, but still genius for all that.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The List

I spoke truthfully in my last blog.  I did feel a list coming on.  And I have made it.  But it needs some explanation, I feel.

For a start, it was impossible to restrict myself to twenty books out of the thousands I have read.  That stalled me, until I was helped out by Professor Carey (of the Unexpected Professor, which I wrote about last time).  He suggested to me that I expand my choices so that I have fiction and non-fiction lists - leaving out poetry and plays - gulp.  For the record, my favourite play is Shakespeare's King Lear and my favourite poem is Mary Oliver's The Journey; well, actually it is Keats' Ode to Autumn, but I'm really trying to bring myself into the twenty-first century.

Then I had to decide between a straight list, or a straight list with explanations against each book.  Oh the dilemma.  

Finally, I have decided to blog my list in sections, starting at number 20 and moving up, one, two or three books at a time, depending on my time and on my aching fingers!

If anyone reads it after all this I will be very pleasantly surprised.

My brother ( helped me to decide on how to make my lists.  However, when he wrote that our text conversation was exactly like my being with him, because he couldn't get a chance to reply to anything, I realised it was time to work on my own.  Thanks, little brother.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015


It's not as vital or impressive as nor even on any similar scale (obviously!) to discovering the Americas or discovering penicillin, but it's still exciting for the individual ... well, me. I mean the discovery of a new (to me) author, then discovering he/she has written more than this one that has turned my heart over. 

(CP Snow, discovered in Oxford in 1973)

It's happened to me many times. Each time has been the same. First the discovery of a new book - that I know, almost before opening it, is going to be special.  And it is. I don't want to stop reading it, but equally I don't want to finish it. I carry it around with me. Everywhere. Even when I know I'll have no chance to read it. It's the most important reason to have a handbag. 

(Handbag bought specifically because a paperback can fit in it)

Then the discovery that the author has written more. Such excitement. And relief. I don't have to worry about what I'll read next. The decision has been made for me. 

It started with the onset of being able to read. I still remember suddenly realising (apparently when I was just two and a half) that I was reading the words of an Andy Pandy book in my head and not listening to my mother reading it to me.  It was a magical magical moment, and I have never forgotten it. 

So my latest discovery is doubly exciting.  

John Carey.  'The Unexpected Professor.'  Of English literature.  At Oxford.  Not only is this book utterly brilliant.  Not only are there more.  But also it's about books.  And Oxford.  Well .....  I've had to read it really really slowly, to prolong the enjoyment.  This has meant putting it down and walking into another room.  It's meant going out without it!  It has also, wonderfully, meant going to my bookshelves to get books that he discusses, to remind myself of the author or the poem or the play.  It's all very exciting for me. 

I can feel a list coming on.

Saturday, 4 April 2015


I went to Oxford for the day.  Down memory lane.  Took in Jesus College, of course.  And Magdelen, Balliol, and Christchurch Colleges. Blackwells of course, and the covered market.  Lunch at Browns.  Christchurch Meadow and the Botanical Gardens.  The best company and great fun.
Of those beautiful buildings, all cleaned now, so you can see the wonderfully yellow Cotswold stone?  None.  
Of my lovely companion soaking up some British history and good memories to take back home to New York?  None.
Of our really tasty lunch, presented so prettily on a plate?  None.
Of a tree trunk? Yes of course.  It's a lovely tree trunk that reminded me of an elephant's foot, but ....

I shall go back very soon and inundate you with the beauty that is Oxford!
I didn't even buy a book!