Books Read in 2022: 19. House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth Century Jewish Family.

Narrative Style: First person

Genre: Memoir, Biography, History

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2020

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Long after Hadley Freeman’s grandmother, Sara, died, Freeman found a box of keepsakes and photos tucked away in her grandmother’s closet. The discovery led to Freeman on a quest to discover exactly what happened to her family during the war, something which her family did not talk about.

Time on shelf: Not long. I’m a big fan of Hadley Freeman’s column in The Guardian and I often agree with her opinions so I was looking forward to reading this and finding out more about the Jewish experience during the war.

Freeman begins this memoir with the moment she found her grandmother’s box of keepsakes. She then describes the road that led her to look in her grandmother’s closet in the first place. This road starts with the description of a holiday to France to meet some of her father’s family as a five year old. Freeman was nervous of her paternal grandparents who always seemed to be bickering and she found her grandmother difficult as she always seemed so sad. She had similar difficulties with the old people she met on the holiday in France. Only two of them could speak English and Freeman felt too shy to speak to any of them. She was initially pleased when she saw her grandmother but she kept herself apart from her siblings, crying quietly to herself. Growing up, Freeman had no idea what might be causing her Grandmother’s depression and her parents didn’t explain. As a result, Freeman never became really close to her grandmother and had little information about her and her siblings. Even so, she decided that she wanted to try and write about her grandmother which is what led her to her grandmother’s closet.

Freeman begins the story of the Glass – then Glahs – family in the early 1900s in Chrzanow, an Eastern European Shtetl where Sara was born Sala, along with her siblings, Alex (born Sender), Henri (Jehuda) and Jacques (Jakob). No one talked about their childhood and Freeman turned to historical documents to try and find out some details about their lives. Lucky for Freeman, her Uncle Rich found a memoir written by Alex. He describes a hard early life. The family were poor and their father had very little luck with employment and health. Then came bigger problems as the Polish started to reject the Jewish people within their country and the Glahs family changed their surname to Glass, the first of many changes they would have to make in order to survive.

Freeman follows the siblings when they escape Poland to France, changing their first names now to sound more French. Each tried, with varying levels of success to make a new life for themselves. Sara suffered from ill health and spent time in a sanatorium but despite this she loved living in Paris, having a great interest in fashion and art. She would always keep this love of French style and Freeman mentions that she always seemed completely French rather than Polish. Unfortunately for her, she was not able to stay in the country she so loved.

I was aware of anti-Semitism in Poland and whilst the Glass family’s experiences there were upsetting, they were unsurprising. I had very little knowledge of life in Vichy France and the consequences for France’s Jewish population and was shocked by the lengths that the Vichy government went to, going further than the Nazis commanded them to. The Glass family loved France and were quite settled by the time that the Nazis invaded and the government started to remove their Jewish citizens. It is hard to imagine what it would feel like when the country you had adopted as your home and which had accepted you suddenly turned on them in such a horrible way. They had already been through the Pogroms in Poland and now here they were again, facing the same horrible problem.

They react in a variety of ways. In fact, Freeman suggests that between them, they represented the various paths that European Jews took during this time. Sara is forced to marry an American that she does not love and who takes her to the States where she will be safe. Jacques refused to believe that his adopted country would hurt him, registered as Jewish and consequently was taken to a concentration camp. By contrast, Henri assimilated and managed to survive the war in Paris. Finally, Alex was likely involved in the resistance and was able to survive due to his pragmatic nature.

They are vividly painted before, during and after the war. I quickly became attached to each of them – heartbroken when Jacques and his wife died in a concentration camp and when Sara is forced to leave the love of her life in France when she goes to America; hopeful and then relieved when Alex and Henri survive the war. Freeman doesn’t stop with the end of the war but carries on their stories until their deaths later in the century. This made it a more hopeful narrative and one that gave more than one version of the Jewish experience. I couldn’t put it down.

Books Read in 2022 – 18. Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

Genre: LGBT, Humour

Narrative Style: Short, third person vignettes from multiple points of view

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1978

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Mary Ann Singleton has just moved to San Francisco. She is naïve, fresh out of Cleveland when she moves into 28 Barbary Lane run by eccentric landlady, Anna Madrigal. She soon becomes friends with other tenants, Mona, Brian and Michael.

Time on Shelf: I bought this while I was at university so 25+ years ago. I read it not longer after buying it. I decided to re-read it as I’m reading More Tales of the City for the TBR Challenge and I couldn’t remember much about it.

This was a lot more enjoyable than I remembered. Although I didn’t really remember the content, I did remember that I’d been a little disappointed when I read it – disappointed enough to not carry on reading the series, anyway. Probably because I read it on the back of Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance and Bartlett’s Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall and was perhaps expecting something similar. Maupin’s novel is something different. For a start, it isn’t an exclusively gay tale. Maupin’s characters are gay, straight and trans although in the first novel, it seems that the straight characters get more page time than the others. Of course, I didn’t realise that Maupin’s novel had been serialised in the San Francisco Chronicle and Maupin felt that he couldn’t incorporate gay characters until the column had a solid following. One of his editors kept a character chart to ensure that the gay characters didn’t get more page time than the hetero ones. That would explain why the main gay character, Michael is such a fleeting presence in the first novel, compared to Mary Ann, for example.

This was a source of disappointment on first reading. However, I must say that I felt differently this time round and it was good to read a novel where the straight and gay characters live together in perfect harmony. Any prejudice tends to come from outside of their community.

I admit, I found Mary Ann a little annoying on both times of reading. She is uptight and prudish, She claims to want a new start in San Francisco but finds it impossible to let go and completely relax. It is hard to understand why Michael is so keen to be her friend. I did enjoy Michael’s romance with the handsome gynecologist, Jon who he wishes to settle down with. I was sad when it finished when Jon sees Michael in an underwear dance contest.

At the end, I felt glad that I had already planned to read on. I felt that there was more to be learned about the characters and that their tales were not over. Maupin sows the seeds of a lot of stories that have yet to flower. I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

Books Read in 2022 – 17. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

Genre: Epistolary, War

Narrative Style: A series of letters between a number of characters.

Rating: 1/5

Published: 2008

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: It is just after the second world war and Juliet Ashton is looking for her next writing project. When she gets a letter from a man she has never met who has found her name in a second hand book, she has no idea of the journey – both personal and professional – she will be taken on when she starts to correspond with him.

Time on shelf: A couple of years. I certainly had the book already when I watched the film during lockdown. I quite enjoyed the film. Having read the book, all I can say is well done to whoever managed to pull that film out of this book.

As ever, I find myself out of step with public opinion on this one. People seem to love this book but I had a real struggle to finish it. It’s a shame because there was some definite historical interest there and some of the stories told by the various people who Juliet corresponds with give a good impression of what life was like for the people of Guernsey under the Nazis.

This is not enough to save it. I quite like an epistolary novel but there a couple of problems with this one that could have been avoided if the author had chosen to tell the story in a different way. The first is that there are a lot of different correspondents here. After her initial contact with Dawsey Adams, she asks that others write to her about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and there are then multiple strands of conversation going on. This brings about the second problem. For all their differences in class, gender, education and occupation, all of the voices sound the same. And despite the fact that they barely know Juliet, they are all more than happy telling her all the intimate details of their wartime lives.

There is only one correspondent that does not like Juliet – Adelaide Addison – and she is a ridiculously over the top villain who polices the morals of the islanders. It was hard to take her seriously as she was more stereotype than fully realised character. She is not the only one. Markham V. Reynolds, Juliet’s suitor, is also underdeveloped. He is a brash, rich, won’t take no for an answer American. Juliet has to turn down two proposals before he gets the message.

I would have liked to have more detail about some of the events but due to the sheer number of correspondents, things were often glossed over. By the end, the tales of war had been usurped by a ridiculous subplot about some letters that Isola Pribby has stored in a biscuit tin which it turns out were written by Oscar Wilde which are then almost stolen by a rival publisher.

I was pleased to get to the end of this. I found the format annoying and Juliet incredibly irritating. It’s not often I say this but in this case, the film was infinitely better.

TBR Challenge – Books Read in 2022 – 16. The Long Call – Ann Cleeves

Genre: Detective, LGBT

Narrative Style: Third person from a number of viewpoints

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2019

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Detective Matthew Venn has built a successful career for himself. He is happily married and starting to be more comfortable with his sexuality. He was brought up in a religious cult that did not approve of his sexuality so he has nothing to do with them. When first, his father dies and later, a case takes him back into the evangelical community, he has to face his mother and his past again.

Time on shelf: I bought this not long after it came out but didn’t get round to reading it. Then I accidentally watched the TV series. I usually like to read the book first so I wanted to leave the book until the TV series wasn’t fresh in my mind.

Reading challenges: TBR Challenge

The Long Call is the start of a new series. I had really enjoyed Cleeves’ Shetland series so I was hoping that this might be the start of a long relationship with Matthew Venn and his colleagues. However, although I enjoyed the plot, I found a lot of the characters a bit flat.

Matthew himself is quite well drawn. He is angry and finds personal relationships difficult. He is less gregarious than his husband, Jonathan and keeps himself to himself. When a man with an albatross on his neck is found dead on the beach, Matthew finds himself at the centre of his first murder case. It was easy empathise with Matthew when he finds the case takes him back into his past and he has to meet with his mother and Dennis, a pastor in the church. It is clear that he finds this difficult and he is often filled with self doubt.

However, I didn’t find the rest of the characters so convincing. DI Jen Raffety was a single mother with an abusive husband in her past who doesn’t trust her colleague, Ross who is arrogant and ambitious. There is Gaby, an artist who is full of secrets and Caroline, religious and rich with a father who feels he has a lot to make up for. They aren’t anymore fleshed out than this. The same goes for members of the church like Dennis and Matthew’s mother.

The plot is more interesting and I did think it was a shame that I had watched it already because Cleeves does set each discovery up well. I don’t think I would have been able to work it out if I hadn’t been able to remember the TV programme. Cleeves touches on domestic abuse, sexual abuse of vulnerable women and the way those in power cover things up whilst also focusing on Matthew’s difficulties in coming to terms with his past. All of which was interesting and compelling.

I’m not sure whether I will read the next books in this series. Whilst I did like Matthew and would be interested in his future, the rest of the characters didn’t appeal at all and I didn’t enjoy the location as much as in the Shetland books but I would consider it.

Top Ten Tuesday – Books I love that were written more than ten years ago

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

This week, the topic is Books I love were written more than ten years ago. As I read more older books than recent ones, this was not a difficult list to write. These are my most recent 5 star reads on Goodreads that are older than 10 years.

  1. The Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell (2009)
  2. The Collector – John Fowles (1963)
  3. Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman (2005)
  4. Mysterious Skin – Scott Heim (1996)
  5. The Reamins of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
  6. The Lost Language of Cranes – David Leavitt (1986)
  7. The Shipping News – Annie Proulx (1993)
  8. All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque (1929)
  9. The Plot Against America – Phillip Roth (2004)
  10. The Midwich Cuckoos – John Wyndham (1957)

TBR Challenge – Books Read in 2022 – 15. Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell

Genre: History, politics, war

Narrative style: first person

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1938

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: In 1936, George Orwell travelled to Spain to report on the civil war. Instead, he joined the fight against the fascists. Homage to Catalonia is his account of the fighting.

Time on Shelf: About 3 years. I downloaded this to my kindle because I was keen to read some of Orwell’s non-fiction (I also bought The Road to Wigan Pier). But then I didn’t read either of them.

Reading challenges: TBR Challenge 2022

Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s personal account of fighting for the POUM militia in 1937. Orwell describes the revolutionary fervour that had taken over Catalonia when he is training for the front. There is a constant shortage of weapons and it is hard to understand how the war is being fought under such circumstances.

He then moves to his experiences in the field in the mountains outside of Barcelona. He doesn’t see much fighting and he describes the mundaneness of hanging around waiting for something to happen. Everything is in short supply. There is very little firewood so they are freezing. As well as food shortages, there is little tobacco – something which really troubles Orwell. Also, should fighting start, they were low on munitions. Again, it was difficult to see how they could fight under these conditions.

Orwell’s tone throughout is one of a proper Englishman. Even when he is shot in the throat, he is stoic and very much a representation of the stiff upper lip. He is also passionately anti-fascist. It is easy to see how Animal Farm and 1984 could have come from his imagination.

It was a little confusing keeping track of all the different elements that are fighting, not only against the fascists but with each other. There were communists, anarchists, and Trotskyists. Orwell carefully details the differences between them and who was allied with who but I admit that it was hard to remember who was who and I spent a lot of time reminding myself of who was who.

Overall, this was a worthwhile read. It gave a snapshot about one part of the Spanish Civil War but I will need to read more to get a full picture of the fighting.

Books Read in 2022 – 14. Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart

Genre: bildungsroman, lgbt, family

Narrative Style: third person – flashback framed by Shuggie’s current life.

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2020

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Hugh “Shuggie” Bain loves his mother, Agnes, very much. He will do anything for her. Unfortunately, Agness is an alcoholic and is not able to look after Shuggie the way she should. The novel describes Shuggie’s life, growing up in 1980s Glasgow on run down estates, sometimes going to school, sometimes not. Shuggie is a quiet, sensitive boy who struggles to fit in. His older siblings manage to escape from Agnes but Shuggie is stuck, unable to leave and unable to save her.

Time on shelf: I bought this with birthday money, last year, so not very long.

This is not an easy read. Shuggie, his siblings and their mother, Agnes are living in Glasgow, in the 1980s and they have no money and few prospects. Life is tough. Agnes is an alcoholic who can’t look after her children. Shuggie’s father is a tough, cruel man. Agnes’ life with him was a series of sexual assaults, violence and betrayals that fuel her drinking. Later, he moves in with another woman, only appearing to make sure that Agnes remains in thrall to him.

Shuggie is a quiet and sensitive child. He cuts out picutres of women from Agnes’ Freemans catalogues, he has dolls that he carries around everywhere and he is no good at what might be considered traditionally masculine things. Everyone seems to be able to see what Shuggie cannot – that he is gay. This leads to bullying and abuse from other children and from adults. Shuggie tries to learn how to behave in a more masculine manner but he cannot hide who he really is.

Shuggie’s siblings, Catherine and Leek, are lucky to be able to escape the family home but Shuggie is tied to Agnes. He feels he cannot desert her. Heartbreakingly, Agnes has a brief interlude of sobriety and things look better for everyone. Shuggie gets to see what the world could be like. Unsurprising;y, it doesn’t last and everything is even worse because he had a taste of what could have been.

This may be a bleak book full of missed chances and shattered dreams but it is compelling. It is easy to empathise with Agnes and her inability to escape from her addiction, and even more so with her children. In the end, it is hard to say what the future will hold for Shuggie. The reader can only hope that he will break the cycle and his life will be better.

Books Read in 2022 – 13. The Midwich Cuckoos – John Wyndham

Genre: Science fiction. Dystopia

Narrative Style: First person, Chronological

Rating: 5/5

Published: 1958

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: When Richard and Janet Gayford return from a trip into town, they find it is impossible to get into Midwich. As soon as anyone comes within a certain distance of the village, they pass out. Thankfully, the effect wears off but then it transpires that all the women in town are pregnant. What had happened to them when they were unconscious.

Time on Shelf: Not very long. I wanted to read it before I watched the recent TV series.

This is a very British book. Wyndham gives his narrator, Richard, a middle class, stoic voice. As he and his wife were away, Janet does not become pregnant so he is able to view events in a largely detached way. He talks to the other villagers and reports what happened in a journalistic way, never succumbing to emotion.

When the babies are born and start to exhibit strange powers, although Richard is concerned, he is able to take a step back and report what is happening, much like a scientist observing an experiment. It quickly become apparent that the children have telepathic powers unlike anything seen in humans. They can force their parents to do their bidding even causing a couple who have left Midwich to return. They lash out when they feel threatened which is worrying for all of the villagers especially as the children are growing up much more quickly then human children would do.

As with other of Wyndham’s book. this is more a thought experiment than a novel. The focus is on how people might react and the moral ramifications. As such, the characters are not all fully developed. More important are the discussions of how the issue of the children will be dealt with when they grow to be more powerful and eventually unstoppable. Wyndham gives examples of events like those of Midwich in other countries and how their governments dealt with them before coming up with his own elegant solution. They have the issue that annihilation of a group of children, no matter how powerful, will not look good to those outside of the issue. It is also virtually impossible to surprise the children who will no doubt fight back viciously against any sort of attack.

This is a novel of discussion and thought, rather than action. It makes you think about what the government would do if such a thing were to occur. I am curious now to see how far the TV series follows the book.

TBR Challenge 2022 – Books Read in 2022 12. Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman

Genre: Urban fantasy, mythology

Narrative Style: Third person from multiple viewpoints.

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2006

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Fat Charlie has a fairly ordinary life. He is about to get married to a woman he is not sure he loves. He has a job that he neither loves nor hates. He is happy enough. Then his father dies and his world is turned upside down. His father, it turns out, is a God and, even more surprising, he has a brother he doesn’t know about.

Time on shelf: A couple of years. I’m not sure why it took me so long to pick it up. I knew it would be good. In fact, that was why I picked it up now. I’d read a couple of not so great books and I knew this would please me.

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge 2022

This was, as you might expect, an absolute treat. Gaiman blends real life and mythology perfectly. Fat Charlie is an ordinary man facing extraordinary circumstances and it is very easy to empathise with him when his life starts to fall apart. His brother, Spider is a God who is used to manipulating everyone and consequently getting his own way. They are poles apart at the start.

When Fat Charlie (a name given him by his father which he has not been able to escape) realises that his father is dead, his memories of him are of all the mean jokes he played on him. He knows that things won’t be straight forward. However, he wasn’t expecting to discover a brother he didn’t remember he had. He has terrible luck and is late for his father’s funeral. Life swirls round him. Out of sheer desperation, he finally calls for his brother by telling a spider he wants him. An act he soon begins to rue.

When his brother, Spider, arrives, things start to go wrong for Fat Charlie. Spider takes a shine to Fat Charlie’s fiancé and uses his godly power to impress her. Spider goes to work instead of Fat Charlie, who is too hungover, and causes issues that lead to Fat Charlie being accused of stealing from his boss. Even though Fat Charlie meets a woman he is much more suited to, he hasn’t the confidence to change the direction of his life. Although he doesn’t realise it straight away, Spider actually does him a favour by falling in love with his fiancé because he changes the course of Charlie’s life.

It’s when he decides that he wants to get rid of Spider that things get a bit darker. Charlie makes a deal with a bird God to get rid of Spider, not realising he is also putting himself in danger. At the beginning, Spider is charming and Charlie is a bit pathetic. As the novel progresses, they start to become more like each other. Spider falls desperately in love with Charlie’s fiance. Charlie learns that he can sing and as a result, charm entire audiences. They both become more well rounded as people

I could find no fault with this. The story trots along nicely, with humour, with romance and with adventure. The characters are well drawn and interesting. The African mythology fits seamlessly with the modern story. Another hit from a master of the craft.

Books Read in 2022 – 11. Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North – Stuart Maconie.

Genre: Travel writing

Narrative Style: informal

Rating 2/5

Published: 2007

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Stuart Maconie is proud of being a northerner but it is a long time since he lived in the north. Exiled in the south for too long, he decides to return to his roots and investigate what is true and what is cliché about his birthplace.

Time on shelf: I bought this a couple of years from a charity shop. We certainly had it during lockdown because my husband made an attempt at reading it. He didn’t get very far before he put it back on the shelf. I really should have taken more notice.

I wouldn’t say I was a massive fan of Stuart Maconie but I always quite enjoy his 6radio show with Mark Radcliffe and I am Northern so I thought this might be an interesting read. And in someone else’s hands it might have been. As it was, it irritated me from the very start.

The book opens with Maconie describing a scene where he and an old friend (also Northern) were making Sunday brunch and they were looking for the sun-dried tomatoes and it turned out they were behind the cappuccino machine. They looked at each other and wondered what they had become. Maconie knows the answer to that: Southerners. I would like to give him a different answer: middle class people. Throughout this book, Maconie equates being Northern with being working class – an annoying stereotype that he seems quite happy to perpetuate. Don’t get me wrong, I know there was a lot of industry in the North and so obviously, there were a lot of workers but every city in the North has its share of moneyed people, just as every Southern city has working class people. To be fair, Maconie does talk about the revitalisation of cities such as Leeds and Manchester that have had a lot of money thrown at them – he mentions how journalists called Leeds ‘the Knightsbridge of the North’ when Harvey Nichols was opened there. But that isn’t what he was talking about in the opening which is about people and how they act. When Maconie comes to talk about Northerners with money, the main place he talks about is Cheshire which is barely in the North. It’s as if he couldn’t countenance anywhere further into the North having that sort of money. There are 28000 millionaires in Yorkshire but I guess that would have spoiled his impression of the cheeky, salt of the Earth, Northerner.

This book should really be called In Search of the North West because that is where Maconie spends most of his time. I understand that he is from Wigan and he loves the North West; that really does come across. However, the whole of Yorkshire and the whole of the North East get one chapter each which seems remiss when Blackpool got nearly a whole chapter to itself. (Incidentally, not all Northerners have been to Blackpool, holiday makers in Newcastle tended to go to Scarborough or Berwick, not somewhere on the other side of the country.) As a result, Durham and Newcastle get only a few pages each. Okay, so I am biased, being from Newcastle, but surely both of these cities deserved more.

Finally, it turns out that Maconie writes like he talks and it is really annoying. I guess having Radcliffe to bounce off on his radio show really takes the edge of how irritating he is. Throw in some needless name dropping and you have a book that I almost didn’t finish. It was only the fact the he deals with the North East (which he calls The Great North but only gives it one chapter) right at the end that kept me reading.