Tag Archives: Non-fiction

Anne Frank – Diary of a Young Girl

5 stars5/5

At almost twice the age Anne was when she write the last lines in her famous diary, I think back and try to remember back to my own inner-monologue as a teenager.

Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl Penguin 60th Anniversary Edition

Penguin, 2007, 60th Anniversary Edition, 368 pages - personal library

On one hand I wonder at her expressive writing and then remember that I as a young person I naturally had a certain freedom of expression and might have been as bold, although not as eloquent! I believe it is Anne’s candidness, which is both innocent and knowing that has made Anne’s diary appeal to millions of readers. As a young person you instantly relate, and as a ‘grown-up’ you suddenly remember what it was like to feel all those complicated emotions. Although it cannot be denied that Anne is self aware, there is an unguarded spirit that is not usually found in adult writing. I can see why some people have refused to believe it was real, because she writes so well, but then it is my view that people often do not give young people credit for the ability to question and for their depth of thinking. Perhaps those people have truly forgotten their youthful selves and how serious and important their concerns were to them.

I picked up my copy of The Diary of a Young Girl when I visited Holland last August. In my Religious Education classes at school I learned the contextual significance of Anne’s diary but I didn’t actually read it, and I have to admit that going to visit the Anne Frank Huis wasn’t top of my list of things to do. Then a friend at work warmly recommended I add it to my itinerary on my visit to Amsterdam and I’m glad to say that it was a truly excellent because of how thoughtfully the exhibition was put together. It also made me want to finally read the diary so I picked up a copy in the shop and when Savidge Reads chose it as one of his books to read before his 30th (his recent review is here) I bumped it up my TBR.

Bookcase - Hidden Stairway - Anne Frank

Amazing - the hidden stairway behind the bookcase - and rather appropriate for a book-blog don't you think?

Well by the 5 star rating and my effusive comments you must have guessed already that I found Anne’s diary to be a fantastic read. I was completely drawn into Anne’s world, shared her moments of speculation, boredom, anger, claustrophobia and fear, sheer delight at simple treats and her emotional ups and downs with her Mother (some seriously harsh words!), her much-admired Father, Peter, and the aggravating Mr Dussel and Mrs van Dann. At times Anne is petulant, irritating. At times she is grateful. Throughout she remains honest and her words sound out her feelings as clear as a bell. Curiously, I didn’t feel overly emotional while reading it, but when I read the afterword her story really hit home. I suppose it’s because by the end of the book I felt as if I had come to know Anne, warts and all, and then to read in black and white what I already knew – that she died in a concentration camp after all that time hiding away – I just felt such sadness. What a waste of a life, and how representative of the lives wasted in that war, through hatred and ignorance. Well I’m really getting on my soapbox now, but it is a story which compels you to consider that fact and it is a heavy warning.

The funny thing is that though we know that the story ends sadly and there are  bitter moments of expression – Anne’s ‘violent outbursts on paper’, but the diary is mostly joyful and optimistic – full of beautiful words and thoughts.

“I’m young and strong and living through a big adventure; I’m right in the middle of it and can’t spend all day complaining because it’s impossible to have any fun! I’m blessed with many things: happiness, a cheerful disposition and strength. Every day I feel myself maturing, I feel liberation drawing near, I feel the beauty of nature and  the goodness of the people around me. Every day I think what a fascinating and amusing adventure this is. With all that, why should I despair?”

The Diary of a Young Girl is unmissable piece of History, and more than that it is a great piece of writing.

To sign off, a couple of photographs from my trip to the Netherlands last year which I never got around to posting at the time. [Photo credit goes to the OH as usual]. “Memories mean more to me than dresses” – Anne Frank.

Houses on the Canal, Amsterdam, Netherlands / Holland

Houses on the canal, Amsterdam.

Windmills - Kinderdijk, Netherlands.

Have you read Anne Frank’s diary or studied it at school?

Do you remember how you felt as a teenager (if you’re not any more!)?

Reading notes 2 – Feat. Edmund de Waal, Kazuro Ishiguro and Juli Zeh

A little while ago I did this post of mini reviews which I found rather a good way of catching up with myself. Sometimes a girl is rushing around so much she realises she’s read lots of books that she hasn’t gotten around to reviewing yet!

I don’t know about you but I find it’s quite therapeutic jotting down thoughts in shorthand sometimes. Here are those virtual post-it’s again…

The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal

3.5 stars3.5/5

Synopsis: 264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox: potter Edmund de Waal was entranced when he first encountered the collection in the Tokyo apartment of his great uncle Iggie. Later, when Edmund inherited the ‘netsuke’, they unlocked a story far larger than he could ever have imagined.

Dark Matter, by Juli Zeh

4 stars4/5

Sebastian and Oskar have been friends since their days studying physics at university, when both were considered future Nobel Prize candidates. But after graduation, their lives took very different paths; while Oskar holds a prestigious research post in Geneva, Sebastain worries that he hasn’t lived up to his intellectual promise, having chosen marriage and fatherhood as an exit strategy. A few days after a particularly heated argument between the two men, Sebastian leaves his son sleeping in the back seat while he goes into a service station. When he returns, the car has disappeared without trace. His phone rings and a voice informs him that in order to get his son back he must kill a man. As Sebastian’s life unravels, the only person he can safely reach out to is Oskar…

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, Kazuo Ishiguro

3 stars3/5

In a sublime story cycle, Kazuo Ishiguro explores ideas of love, music and the passing of time. From the piazzas of Italy to the Malvern Hills, a London flat to the ‘hush-hush floor’ of an exclusive Hollywood hotel, the characters we encounter range from young dreamers to cafe musicians to faded stars, all of them at some moment of reckoning. Gentle, intimate and witty, this quintet is marked by a haunting theme: the struggle to keep alive a sense of life’s romance, even as one gets older, relationships flounder and youthful hopes recede.

*dusting off hands* Well that’s my little wrap up for the week!

Have you read any of these books. Did you find The Hare with the Amber Eyes what you expected? Have you been lulled by Ishiguro’s short stories or baffled by Juli Zeh’s physics-themed murder mystery?

A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis

4 stars4/5

Does it seem morbid to choose to read a book about grief? I spotted this slim volume – A Grief Observed – on the library returns shelf and was drawn to the title which stood out as unusual.

Faber paperbacks, 1966 edition (first published 1961), 64 pages - library loan

I like the element of chance involved in picking up a book recently selected by someone else for reasons known only to them. I hope that the person who borrowed it previously read it like me, out of curiosity rather than personal grief. Having only read Lewis’s children’s books I felt it might be interesting to read outside of my typical reading scope, but with a familiar voice.

A Grief Observed, is an almost scientific title. It suggests abstraction as if the author is conducting analysis of another person’s state of mind. However this book is intensely personal. It reads like a diary and at the same time, a conversation. The reader comes to feel as if they are a true confident, trusted with Lewis’s most personal moments as he goes through the process of grief after the death of his wife, who is referred only as “H”.

At times his writing feels like a eulogy and at others a simple therapeutic act. At the beginning of the book, Lewis is working through his immediate emotional response, frightened that he might forget “H”, or worse still that he will create a false memory of her – a sort of idol or lifeless doll. He criticises himself for being self-pitying, angrily questions his idea of God and rails against the seemingly glib advice and words given by others trying to offer their awkward yet well-meaning words to a bereaved friend.

Of course, this is a sad book to read, but also so beautifully and eloquently written. The raw human feeling expressed by Lewis is moving. It is also frightening – who amongst us, as we become more aware of our own mortality and those around us does not occasionally think how terrible it would be to lose someone we love? In an odd way, I believe that this little book could be comforting at a time of loss, if only because of how openly the author shares his experience.

Fascinating for me (yet also perplexing), was Lewis’s exploration of his feelings towards God. At times he wonders whether he truly exists and in the depth of his anger declares that if he does he must surely be cruel.

“I am more afraid that we are really rats in a trap. Or worse still, rats in a laboratory. Someone said, I believe ‘God always geometrises’. Supposing the truth were ‘God always vivisects’.”

He uses the epithet “The Cosmic Sadist” to God, and the description of Him as a “Vivisectionist” is such a harsh yet vivid image of a person feeling literally pulled apart… experimented upon by some higher detached being.

In the later passages of the book however there is a distinct change in tone. The writing becomes more conciliatory, less passionate with convoluted explanations for why God does exist and isn’t cruel. Although I was unsure of some of Lewis’s logic, I felt relieved that the process of writing his grief seemed to have helped him to move through and beyond his initial pain. Still though, the knowledge that he has that he may be yet surprised by a new fresh sadness, lingers and reminds us of how deeply he loved his wife.

“Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop. There is something now to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape”.

I felt admiration for how the clarity and beauty of his words. Although A Grief Observed is a sad piece of writing, Lewis’s obvious passion for his wife inspires me and his words make me wonder at how strongly humans can be bound together by love.

What books have you read that really affected you?

Novels in Three Lines, by Félix Fénéon

3.5 stars3.5/5

A gift from my Uncle (thanks Uncle T!), Novels in Three Lines is the perfect book to keep on your bedside table to dip into. No vast swathes of convoluted prose here, only epic stories in miniature penned by a master of brevity.

New York Review Books, 2007 paperback edition, 208 pages - gift

The three-line “novels” contained in this book are snippets of news, known as “fait-divers” in French, which were published in the Paris daily newspaper Le Matin during the year 1906. The collection brings together 1,220 anecdotal scraps which tell of present-day events, dramatic crimes, tragedies, political stories and cover a whole world of perverse goings-on. They are almost haiku-like in the way that they sum-up so briefly, conveying events with pin-point accuracy, each with a sardonic edge.

Novels in Three Lines, is an interesting book to read in the context of the age of Twitter, which as well as being a communication device and a platform for people to broadcast themselves, has become a way of receiving news in the most immediate and abrupt way. In an era where people are overloaded with information, we often look for shorter sharper, quicker ways of absorbing it. Fénéon would have had a million followers on his Twitter account!

“Emilienne Moreau, of Plaine-Saint-Denis, had thrown herself in the drink. Then she leaped four floors. Still alive, but she’ll re-consider.”

Some of the snippets are simply FYIs:

“Some murdered women: Mme Gouriau, Mme Josserand, Mme Thiry, 24, 69, 72, of Coatméal, Saint-Maurice Sorbey (Finistere, Loire, Meuse).”

Others give news of disgruntled workers and outbreaks of disease. There also accidental tragedies which are both ludicrous and pitiable such as the woman who accidentally stabbed herself while balancing on a swing with scissors in her hand. The stories together paint quite a grim portrait of early Twentieth Century France – who on earth said things were safer in the old days!?

Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890, by Paul Signac (1890) via giganticmag.wordpress.com

This book is a good little gift for someone who likes curiosities and it’s also a clever example of how it is possible to get a message across with just a sentence or two. This review is probably an illustration of how I have yet to learn the art of brevity!

Do you like your information distilled or in detail?

How To Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran

5 stars5/5

Caitlin Moran’s book How To Be a Woman, is part memoir, part plea to all women to be true to themselves, not accept sexist double standards and basically use their common sense.

Ebury Press, 2011 paperback edition, 320 pages - personal library

It’s a book that both women and men should read, and it is accessible and enjoyable for men too – I tried it out on my other half! The experience of reading this book is a bit like having an older, wiser big sister telling you her view of life.

It’s opinionated, passionate and very funny. It’s the right conversation to be having now. Even if it is more autobiography and a bit of a rant than being a careful exploration of feminist theory, it is a book that challenges all the stupid things that women are told (and tell themselves) with a big bucketful of humour and for that, I love Caitlin Moran. I lost count of the times I chuckled out loud reading this on public transport. I only hope that the people giving me baffled looks went and got themselves a copy! Not everyone will agree with everything Moran says, and as my boyfriend pointed out she does go a little bit off the boil (slightly more rant and less logic) towards the middle of the book, but that’s exactly what I like about her – she just tells it as she sees it in a funny and also poignant way.

An absolute tonic.

Have you read How To Be a Woman? Have you read any books recently that made you laugh out loud?

The Weight of a Mustard Seed, by Wendell Steavenson

The Weight of a Mustard Seed by Wendell Steavenson was Kim’s choice (Reading Matters) for the Riverside Readers book Group. It was our first non-fiction book and turned out to be an excellent choice provoking a variety of different viewpoints and making for a discussion that started out on the balance of power in Iraq and ending up as an exploration of whether the Internet could be used to control the world!

The Weight of a Mustard Seed is a patchwork of stories that Steavenson collected during her time in Iraq as a journalist from 2003 onwards. She focuses on the life of General Kamel Sachet, using her interviews with his family and friends to explore the mindset and motivation of an Iraqi general and from this, the wider effect of the violent history of Iraq on its people.

I would describe The Weight of a Mustard Seed as a Fiction, Non-fiction hybrid. Steavenson mixes stylistic elements like themed chapters (Shame, Pride, Waiting) and some wonderful descriptive prose with cold hard fact and detailed descriptions of battles and dialogues between key characters. I particularly appreciated the way that Steavenson used references to everyday things to emphasise that Iraq was a civilised country like any other, interspersed with images of violence to show the effect of the years of war in it’s becoming a place of chaos and tragedy.

Steavenson takes journalistic license to re-interpret the motivations of the people she talks to. In parts she makes sweeping statements which might be bordering on patronising, but more times than not, she does effectively to sum up her viewpoint for the reader.

“It was an ordinary everyday tragedy, the same as any other of the unnumbered millions, a man killed….It was a tragedy of hubris: of pride, over-confidence, self certainty. Kamel Sachet’s end was a very Iraqi tragedy, but Iraq was not a Shakespeare play, plotted as one man, his destiny and a final curtain. It was only an episode in a long-running serial.”

Of course, Steavenson as an outsider that means that she has to interpret and puzzle over the behaviours of the people she meets and I think that this mirrors the perspective of the reader, themselves a ‘foreigner’ trying to understand the characters. I felt that she did a good job of representing what she saw faithfully and at the same time bringing in her own viewpoint.

The Weight of a Mustard Seed is an accessible book for those wanting to read a factual book about Iraq. Although some idea of the history of the Iraqi wars does admittedly help, I don’t think that the reader would lose the overall mood or miss the themes that Steavenson conveys without this knowledge. In a way I feel as if the dates and events are just collateral around which Stevenson plots the human aspects of the book. If anything, The Weight of a Mustard Seed could be read as a starting point from which a reader would be inspired to learn more.

I found The Weight of a Mustard Seed a fascinating and moving piece of writing. I thought that Stevenson was subtle enough not to need to linger too long on particular violent incidents, while conveying the threatening mood and sadness of the situation to great effect. She seeks to understand the behaviour of Kamel Sachet but doesn’t let him off the hook, weighing up his bravery, his faults and his crimes, provoking the reader into thinking for themselves.

My rating:

7.5 out of 10

Other thoughts on this book can be found at: Savidge Reads

Have you read any good books about Iraq? Do you prefer to read factual books or learn about the world indirectly through fiction?