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.


  1. Niall, Interesting piece and I will seek out the Warsaw Anagrams. But I'm also intrigued by in what ways these books shifted your views and what are your new perspectives. I'd love it if you'd share that.

  2. Thanks Henry - I bottled sharing some of the shifts, as I wasn't sure what reactions I might get about what can be a contentious area. I have close Jewish relations, which I guess directly relates to why my subconscious started me down this particular literary path, and as a 'Gentile', wasn't sure it was my place to comment. However, since you ask, my biggest realisation was the the German people themselves were oppressed and brutalised by and under the Nazis throughout the war; I was unaware of that. I also came to view some other nations and people in a different light as well, probably through my own prior ignorance of their collaboration with the Nazis. These books brought the reality of people's lives in appalling circumstances up close and personal. That's been the power of my reading and the resulting desire to reflect and comment. Thanks for taking the time to read and probe!

  3. Hi Niall – fingers crossed it works this time! Now I need to remember what I wrote yesterday...

    I always have a book on the go – I tend to alternate between a Kindle book and a paperback – and I also always have large real and virtual ‘to-read’ piles. I read fiction almost exclusively, with the exception of the occasional autobiography or work-related book and my weekly Grazia magazine. But the range of fiction I read is very wide – I’m the opposite of a book snob and will basically give anything a try. Some things I read for complete escapism, but other books I love because they really make me think – and not always the ones I expect. For instance, right now I’m reading Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses series, recommended to me by my 11-year-old brother. I was expecting a very quick and easy read designed for young teenagers, but I’m completely engrossed and the series has made me think about race issues in a new way.

    Having been a literature student, I probably have a tendency to analyse some books I read rather than simply enjoying them, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think I’m able to distinguish between a good storyteller and a good writer, and I also think my love of reading goes hand-in-hand with my love of writing. I’ve been a bookworm since I was a child and believe that the wide range of fiction I read feeds my own imagination and creativity; I’m also sure that my ability to adapt my writing style is, at least in part, down to always having read many different authors and genres from different periods.

    To answer your last couple of questions, I only read Kindle books and paperbacks. Very occasionally I buy a hardback if it’s a book I can’t wait to get my hands on (like last year’s Room). I also sometimes buy a book on my Kindle and later buy the paperback version, if it’s a book I really loved! I can’t see myself reading fiction on my smartphone or laptop – to me, that’s too much like work and I don’t think I’d get lost in the story in the same way. I haven’t been to a library for years, but I often give new copies of much-loved books as gifts and I always pass on good books to my family (because I trust them to take as much care of my books as I do!). For me, this is the real downfall of the Kindle – I can’t read a book, love it and lend it to my mum!

  4. Great post Niall and also being a commuter like you and Stephanie, I too always have a book on the go. Whilst on holiday in West Wales I read a book called 'A Million Little Pieces' by James Frey. It's a supposedly autobiographical account of James's time in rehab with an alcohol and drug addiction. I didn't realise until after finishing the book that there was actually some controversy surrounding it as the author later admitted that some elements of the story were made up. However, that didn't really bother me as I just took it as I found it but apparently caused real uproar at the time, which is interesting given your question regarding factual vs fiction. This book is something of a mix of the two! What was factual though was James's addiction and his struggles with becoming 'clean'. I found his journey immensely powerful and to begin with he's really not all that likeable! But as he progresses and we follow his story and those of other addicts, it really challenged my perception of addiction. I also read it just after the death of Amy Winehouse when there was a lot of media coverage around addiction. I have a friend whose sister is struggling with an alcohol problem at the moment and have recommended it to her to read. James finds a quite incredible inner strength and calm which I found really inspiring and it's not often a book truly stays with you after you've finished reading it.

    That does lead me nicely onto the next point which is about how I access books. If I'd bought 'A Million Little Pieces' in paperback I could have lent it to my friend but of course I downloaded it onto my Kindle. This is the big downside of the Kindle for me and my friends and family and I have always been big sharers of books. I find I'm now reading nearly all of my books on my Kindle however, apart from those I've been lent or given which I'm quite surprised about. It's just so easy and convenient. I have had to set myself a spend limit every month though as it would be very easy to spend a fortune with Amazon otherwise! Overall I just love everything about the Kindle - it's probably the best early birthday present I've ever been given!

    One book I couldn't have downloaded onto the Kindle was one I got for my birthday however. It's an enormous coffee table book of beautiful photographs taken by the fashion photographer Tim Walker. It is wonderful and some of the pictures are breath-taking and I feel like I'm transported into another world every time I look at it. Amazing what a book can do hey :)