Monday, 22 August 2011

A 'Novel' Learning Experience

I have just finished reading an intriguing and deeply moving novel called "The Warsaw Anagrams" by Richard Zimmler, which tells a story of life for the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto during the second world war.  That description completely underplays the magic, mystery and impact of the book, but it allows me to open up what I really wanted to talk about in today's blog.

Half way through the book, I suddenly realised that this was the fourth book I have read in the last year or so, which has been either directly or indirectly about Germany, the Nazis and the German people before and during the Second World War, and about the treatment of the Jewish people at that time.  This was not a conscious intent on my part - in fact, I was taken aback at this realisation, as if my subconscious had been leading me unaware down a literary path for which there must be some kind of reason.

In order of reading then, these four books are:

"Alone in Berlin" - Hans Fallada. A novel, based on an actual case, about an elderly German couple's passive resistance to Hitler, following the death of their son at the Front, by dropping anonymous anti-Nazi postcards across Berlin, and the authority's hunt to track them down.  Written during the War, it brought to my attention the oppression and hardships of the German people themselves under Nazism, something about which I was unaware.  I bought this book on impulse in a book shop.

"The Hare with the Amber Eyes: a Hidden Inheritance" - Edmund de Waal. This was one of my first e-book purchases for my Kindle e-reader, and I purchased it because I was aware of its coverage in the media, as Winner of  the 2010 Costa Book Biography Award and the 2011 Ondaatje Prize.  I loved this book and have recommended and gifted it in paperback to friends and family.  It tells the story of a Jewish family banking dynasty, through de Wall's investigation of the history of a collection of Japanese Netsuke (small, intricately carved ivory pieces), which he inherited.  Again, in a fascinating family tale starting in Odessa, through the Paris of the Impressionists, Austria and the eventual diaspora (dispersal) of the family, the most revelatory section of the story for me was how the Jews were systematically brutalised and disinherited during the Austrian Anschluss of 1938. At times difficult, this is a deeply moving and satisfying read.

"Fatherland" - Robert Harris.  Another e-book, I was drawn to this story by the 'alternate history' angle.  It is 1964.  Hitler won the War.  In a Greater German Reich, a Detective follows a murder and conspiracy trail, which ultimately leads him to the exposure of atrocities about which we know in reality, but which, in the novel, were suppressed from the victorious German people.  My Science, Detective and Historical Fiction 'buttons' all got pressed effectively when reading this well-crafted novel.

"The Warsaw Anagrams" - Richard Zimmler.  As I said at the start, this novel is set in the Warsaw Ghetto of 1940, as the Nazis seal 400,000 Jews inside a small area of the Polish capital. Children are murdered and an elderly Jewish psychiatrist investigates. A mystical, horrifying, moving, sometimes humourous and cleverly plotted sorta-detective story, I was gripped throughout.

I should just mention here that I did not read these books 'back-to-back'.  I read them over a period of about a year, interspersed with lots of other books, periodicals and blogs.  I'm a commuter, as I have mentioned before ("Under the Commute" 1st May 2011), so I've always got a book on the go.  Hence me not initially noticing that there might be an underlying theme going on in my reading choices.

So, why am I sharing this with you? What's the point?  The least I can say is "Here are some interesting books I've read and been moved by; you might want to check them out yourself."  This is not a piece of literary criticism nor is it a a set of book reviews. It's not an advert for the Amazon Kindle either.  I have written this blog more for my own reflection than anything else - but I have learned something along the way... 

I also mentioned in a previous blog ("Man on the Moon" 17th May 2011) that I am not a book-learner.  But I think that the four novels listed above have taught me something about looking deeper into 'received wisdom', about not just going along with the 'accepted view'.  And also maybe, about listening out for what my subconscious whispers to me.  Some of my views have shifted, and I am much richer for the learning I gleaned from having read these books than had I not.

What do you get from reading fiction, as opposed to factual books?  Do you read both? What other written materials feature in your reading lists?  And how do you access them - good old paper books, e-reader, tablet, smartphone, laptop? Where do you get your books from - online, bookshop, library?  I'd be interested in your experiences.