Category Archives: #literature

Off The Beaten Track 6

BBC Radio 4 has a morning Book of the Week slot on week days, it’s not my usual listen, but due to intriguing descriptions in the Radio Times I’ve recently tuned in.  I’ve been enthralled by the stories concerning two remarkable women, one trying to escape Nazi occupied France, the other honestly chronicling the effects of living with early onset Alzheimer’s. Both have deeply touched me and I will definitely be buying the books, although I admit that the subject matter are areas I would normally shy away from, finding them upsetting to think about. But the indomitable spirit of both these women shone through the readings, and I found myself eagerly awaiting the next episode, in a kind of “wondering way”. Those ten 15 minute slots taught me more about life, survival, history and compassion than anything I’ve seen on TV.  The books are as follows:

NO PLACE TO LAY ONE’S HEAD Francoise Frenkell (Pushkin Press, £16.99)

My interest was caught when the Radio Times commented the book was initially published in Geneva 1945, and then seemingly forgotten until discovered in a French attic in 2010. A second edition was issued in French and now an English translation has been made. A firsthand account of a Jewish woman’s survival and escape from the Nazi’s in France, printed perhaps in the first few weeks of Europe peacetime in 1945, and then untouched until re-discovered in a modern day world.  Wow!

Frenkell came from a Polish Jewish family, was highly educated to degree level (I believe) having studied in Paris, and ended up opening a French bookshop in Berlin on discovering no such facility existed. Her clientele was illustrious, business brisk and successful and the future looked bright in early 1930s Berlin. Then the rule of Hitler and the effect of his policies kicked in. I listened as her beloved bookshop managed to avoid destruction as it wasn’t on an official destroy list. How she had to leave it behind and flee in the night, traversing through Europe from city to city, always somehow avoiding major crackdowns, or invasion, by a matter of days. Her skirmishes with authority and her escape attempts to reach Switzerland, finally successful. Frenkell’s words seem to be beautifully translated into an eloquent yet matter of fact way, and I listened with my “heart in my mouth” most of the time. I punched the air when her escape was successful and breathed a sigh of relief. My overall feeling was one of admiration for Francoise and her determined nature to survive in an intolerable society. But there was anger as well at the same society for its blinkered rule of law. It seemed to conveniently ignore, no doubt because of her Jewish ethnicity,  the fact Frenkell had all the necessary documentation (residency papers, visa) to live peacefully in France and to travel with ease to Switzerland.  My listening ended with Francoise setting foot in Switzerland where she survived the war to write her memoir, about her life before Nazi rule in Europe and her escape from it. The French publishing company Gallimard discovered Frenkell passed away in Nice in 1975 at the ripe age of 86 but could find no relatives.

SOMEBODY I USED TO KNOW Wendy Mitchell (Bloomsbury £9.99)

My listening journey with Wendy began with her describing a “fog in her head” and inexplicable falls whilst she was out running. Doctors suggested she could have had a stroke, having discovered a heart condition that was fixed through surgery. The fog continued and eventually a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s was made after a seemingly painfully slow series of visits with health clinicians. Her description of looking at online videos of people living with the condition was searing, the initial thought of “but these are old people nearing the end of their lives” before finding one of a man in his late 50s like herself, who described his experiences in a mirror like fashion to her own.

Wendy worked as a NHS administrator known for her powers of recall and organisation skills. Slowly she had become aware that her grasp on things wasn’t the same. When she told management of her diagnosis the only thing offered was early retirement, there was no procedure to try and enable her to work within her remaining mental capabilities, which were still considerable. Her co-workers brilliantly rallied around to make tasks less stressful and more easy to deal with, enabling Wendy to continue in her job as long as possible. With unexpected early retirement foisted upon her Wendy decided to use her time attending conferences, doing speaking engagements and becoming a leading advocate for those living with Alzheimer’s & Dementia. Through this work she hopes to educate people to have a better understanding of the condition. I was certainly educated as I listened to excerpts from Mitchell’s book. Hearing how familiar things can suddenly seem strange and confusing, city living becoming too noisy to deal with, the use of technology to help try and trick her condition, the coping strategies Wendy uses to deal with the sudden onset of panic. It was illuminating to literally “see the world through Wendy’s eyes” and to hear how her condition is slowly taking over her mind. Her articulation is heartfelt, honest and at times perhaps unconsciously funny with a wry humour, like her wonderment at experiencing a gliding session and how quiet the flight was, whilst knowing she wouldn’t remember a thing about the safety video if disaster struck. The realisation “if you don’t use it you will lose it” after taking a three week break from her work and finding the computer keyboard incomprehensible for a few hours. How the person she is today is someone she doesn’t really recognise anymore, yet for the joys she has lost (like TV shows, long novels, cooking) an appreciation for new joys (short stories, poetry, old familiar films). I shared Mitchell’s sadness and resigned acceptance when her extra income from government support was removed, having been deemed fit enough to function on a daily basis.  Much of the “medical tests” used depended on the person remembering how they were before, a ludicrous concept when you consider the nature of an Alzheimer’s condition. Wendy’s resilience and determination to live life to the full for as long as possible was utterly compelling. Once again I had found a woman living in a difficult situation, making the best of it and triumphing in a way against the odds. Somehow both Francoise and Wendy made me feel empowered too.

In closing, I will mention a book that has been on my bookshelf since 2001. It’s called HAPPY TIMES by Lee Radziwill (sister of Jackie Kennedy Onassis). I read about it in a Sunday newspaper supplement, and asked my husband to look for it in America when he visited a few weeks later. There is little dialogue in it and is mainly a gorgeous photo book, rather like a family album. I’ve delved into it many a time, but only really read the dialogue this week. I’ve been happily updating my photo album with recent activity pictures, and from Wendy Mitchell’s book there is a strong element of how important photo’s can be for memories. We live in such uncertain times; I’ve chosen to look for the joy in things as much as possible. Photography is a passion and a joy, and my husband suggested I look at Happy Times again and actually read it. A quote in the introduction says it all for me: “I believe that without memories there is no life, and that our memories should be of happy times. That’s my choice”.


Seven Books From Adulthood That Have Stayed With Me

World Book Night in the UK is an event where volunteers disperse books to people who don’t normally read as a habit, and as a keen reader myself, it got me thinking about which books have stayed with me as an adult. These are the ones that instantly spring to mind:

KRAKATOA THE DAY THE WORLD EXPLODED by SIMON WINCHESTER – Brilliantly researched and well written book that chronicles the regions socio/political and economic history. The gradual understanding of geological processes and elementary evolutionary studies are explained. Numerous sources detail the human tragedy of the volcanic eruption, the repercussions of which still echo to this day. A global event reported through history, science and sociology.

A REDBIRD CHRISTMAS by FANNIE FLAGG – This is a beautiful heart warming story about community, friendship and unshakeable faith. An injured red cardinal enchants a town, befriends a little crippled girl and heals a broken man. When the bird dies everyone feels lost but his spirit returns to help the girl. A fractured community reunites and couples form over a magical Christmas.

SEABISCUIT THREE MEN AND A RACEHORSE by LAURA HILLENBRAND – Another well researched book that chronicles the story of how three people came together and made a champion out of a small misunderstood horse. I felt every emotion reading this equine sports biography, which details how Seabiscuit became “the people’s champion” thanks to a benevolent owner, understanding trainer and intuitive rider. You can read my Seabiscuit blog here:

JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL by RICHARD BACH – A beautiful simple book with a great mandate for living that is a perfect example of my mantra, “why be a sheep if you can be a shepherd”. Jonathan remains true to himself and is cast out from his flock as a result. But he receives enlightenment and wisdom which he tries to pass on to future generations. There seems to be a distinct Buddhist element to the story through various levels of consciousness.

UNKNOWN SOLDIERS by MARK LEECH – A Major with no battle experience is deployed to a French village to oversee the clearance of the WW1 dead. Through his interactions with relatives of the deceased and dealing with his battle weary charges, the Major begins to realise the full meaning of soldier solidarity and appreciate the true cost of the war. This is a hauntingly poignant tale which seems to easily convey the colour of World War One, the drab brown of the cloying mud, which engulfed the troops and choked their spirit, but could not destroy the camaraderie of the trenches.

WHO SHOT JFK by ROBIN RAMSEY – Details gathered over the years are condensed into a narrative that offers a brilliant introduction to the subject matter. It debunks ideas along the way, but also highlights areas where evidence has been repeated in different forms. It seems to try to remain objective and neutral throughout, and brings together strands of information from over the “lifetime” of the crime. Depending on your viewpoint the conclusions drawn are outrageous and utterly ludicrous, OR horrifying, audacious and yet shockingly believable.

FIRST MOTHERS by BONNIE ANGELO – Read how a mother’s influence shaped a son’s development until he became the man who called himself President of the United States. This is a fascinating glimpse into the childhoods of boys who grew up to hold the highest political office in the USA. From Franklin Roosevelt to George W Bush, we see how family dynamics and the personalities of the “first mothers” helped mould the characters of their sons, in the formative years.

As a child I was a prolific Enid Blyton reader and my substitute adult equivalent is Maeve Binchy, therefore I deliberately did NOT mention any of her books. I find Dan Brown novels real page turners that provide me with a sense of adventure. The innocent times discovered through my BOBBY BREWSTER childhood reading has been unearthed in the MISS READ series, and the vague sense of wonder I got from Bobby has matured into something more profound in Mitch Albom’s writing. You can read my childhood books blog here:

In closing, an honourable mention MUST go to Fingerprints of the Gods by Graham Hancock, which is indelibly seared into my consciousness for having taken a year (at least) to read! My reading style is one book at a time, with sometimes days or weeks passing between my put down/pick up actions. If scientific concepts are involved I like to puzzle over them to fully comprehend their meaning, and so several parts of this book were re-read as a result. On finishing it, my husband laughingly said “you do realise in the time it’s taken you to read this book, you could have completed a Masters course!”

Seven Books From Adulthood. Image credit abmj
              Seven Books From Adulthood. Image credit abmj


Seven Books From Childhood That Have Stayed With Me

World Book Day in the UK is an event that tries to encourage schoolchildren to read, and it got me thinking about the books that have stayed with me since I was a child.

Two stories from my pre-school years that have remained etched into my memory.

THE SNOW QUEEN by HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN-I had a large format picture book given to me as a Christmas gift by an aunt. The illustrations were beautiful and the tale rather enchanting and it is one of my three favoured festive stories, the others being Hansel & Gretel and A Christmas Carol. But it was a pantomime that switched me onto Hansel & Gretel and I never read the Dickens classic until the winter of 2014. As an adult I got a replacement large format copy of The Snow Queen from my husband who realised how much this story meant to me.

SO NOW TO SLEEP: author unknown-This was a small pink covered book with delightful pictures, given to me by my Uncle Harry visiting from Australia around 1973. The prose was actually a long poem which I found an absolute joy and committed to memory thankfully, as the physical book (and The Snow Queen original copy) is long gone. Despite several Google searches I’ve been unable to discover the author of So Now To Sleep (I’m reasonably sure that was the title), but presume it could be an Australian children’s’ writer. Here are the words:

So Now To Sleep
The sun has set and day is done,
It’s time for sleep my little one,
The animals have said goodnight,
And Mr Moon is shining bright,
Your little friends are all tucked in,
Their sweetest dreams will soon begin,
But wait before you jump in bed,
Your goodnight prayers must first be said,
Talk to Jesus he’s your friend,
And say goodnight at each day’s end,
Ask him to bless the people who,
Live in this lovely world with you,
God bless Father God bless Mother,
And don’t forget your baby Brother,
God bless Granny, Grandpa and,
Boys and Girls from every land,
God bless your Aunts and Uncles too,
And don’t forget God bless you,
So now to sleep drift away,
Tomorrow dawns another day.

I devoured Enid Blyton books and for that very reason I am NOT including her in my list. In Primary Four my class were encouraged to find, read and review books from the small school library stock. Teachers knew I was a Blyton buff so banned me from choosing her so I had to find something else, and I discovered the delights of:

BOBBY BREWSTER by H.E. TODD-Bobby was a young boy who had extraordinary experiences with everyday items. Inanimate objects would come to life, speak to him and dish out a gentle moral code of good behaviour and high standards. Every short story was just a joy to read, so innocent and well meaning in their context. I think these books are out of print now but thanks to the internet I’ve recently purchased a few, and enjoyed a nostalgic trip down my reading memory lane.

In my first year of high school the novel I studied was simply unforgettable and made a huge impression on me.

I AM DAVID by ANN HOLM-David a boy who has only known the harshness of an Eastern Block concentration camp (possibly Bulgaria) is given a brief chance to escape. With few possessions he makes an epic journey on foot across Europe to Denmark, where unbelievably he seems to find his mother. The loneliness, determination, humbleness, innocence of the real world and sense of mission are extraordinary.

For English interpretation exercises we read excerpts from books and I was so enamoured by two pieces that I found them in the local library and read the whole book.

TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN by PHILIPPA PEARCE-Tom stays with a relative and hears a clock chime 13. On investigation he is transported back in time where he meets a lonely girl called Hatty. He befriends her and enjoys many fun times, but each time he meets Hatty she has got a little older. Just before the end of his visit he goes sleep walking and calls out for his friend. Tom is summoned by the elderly woman resident in the building Mrs Bartholomew who was disturbed by his tormented sleep, and he discovers it is his friend from the past. I found it an absolutely enthralling and magical tale.

THE SWISH OF THE CURTAIN by PAMELA BROWN– I read this over the May Bank holiday weekend of 1983. It was about a group of kids (around the same age I think) who put together a play by themselves, doing staging, lighting, advertising etc. How they learned the plot and acted it out, and the strains of ego and terror affecting their friendships. I was so absorbed by the book the TV went largely unnoticed, as did the weather outside (probably wet anyway). I still distinctly remember the feelings I had reading this book, BUT as an adult I couldn’t recall the book title or the author or any central characters name. Internet searches proved fruitless until I came across a Guardian article from February 2014, which listed books that could introduce cultural pursuits such as ballet and theatre to kids. The Swish of the Curtain was about the first one mentioned and I swiftly found a copy to buy online. Within a few pages I’d found my elusive book and felt the same pangs of emotion as a forty-something I’d had as a teenager. There are four other books in the series and I’ve bought these as well because I always wondered what became of the characters as they reached adulthood.

EXPLORING THE MIDNIGHT WORLD (Piccolo Explorer Books)-an early purchase from The Chip Club magazine bought from saved tuck shop money. The pictures look like hand painted masterpieces and unveiled the world of animal life active during my bedtime sleep in the countryside and garden. But wildlife from around the world was discussed through desert, jungle and cave environments, and topics such as night sight, a sixth sense and living light were reviewed. It tapped into my sense of wonder about the natural world, and I still remember my utter delight when David Attenborough discussed tarsiers from SE Asia a few years ago. They were depicted in this book and it was love at first sight. To this day I need to be able to locate this little treasure on our book shelves. If my childhood books were threatened by fire this is the title I would save from the flames.

In closing a special mention must go to Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang the first books to ever make me cry.

Childhood Special Books. Image credit abmj70
              Childhood Special Books. Image credit abmj70