Category Archives: Book Genres
For Nonfiction November this week we’re looking at pairing up a work of fiction with a work of non fiction.
I’m feeling generous this week (it’s probably all those endorphins floating around after my session in the gym this morning) so am going to offer you not one, but two pairings. In a week that we will mark the end of one of the worst conflicts in history, I thought it was fitting that both are on the theme of war.
Couple #1: World War 1
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks follows two characters who live at different times. One is Stephen Wraysford, a British soldier on the front line in Amiens during the First World War. The other is his granddaughter, Elizabeth Benson, who more than fifty years later discovers his journals from World War I and seeks to learns about his experiences at Marne, Verdun and the Somme.
Faulks said that he wrote the novel partly because he felt that the First World War had not been discussed enough in both literary and historical contexts.
I’m not sure whether he thinks that has now changed. We’ve certainly seen “The Great War” feature more prominently in the UK school curriculum in the last few years and the 100th anniversary of the Armistice this weekend is appropriately being marked around the country.
Unfortunately so many of the people who returned from that conflict are no longer with us to share their memories and experiences. We do however have the archives of the Imperial War Museum who recorded thousands of soldiers, the families they left behind and people who survived the war. The results are available in The Forgotten Voices series of books. The one I read, the Forgotten Voices of the Great War contained some tremendously moving testimonies that helped me appreciate what my great grandfather experienced ( he was one of the lucky ones who returned home to his family). Highly recommended reading if you have anyone in your family who served in the war or even if you didn’t but want to understand more about the war that was meant to end all wars.
Couple #2: World War 2
Oskar Schindler saved the lives of more than 1,000 Jewish people during World War 2. His actions were brought to public attention through the book Schindler’s List (sold as Schindler’s Ark outside the United States) by Keneally. The book, which Keneally labelled a novel, won him the Booker Prize in 1982. The film version directed by Steven Spielberg, won seven Academy Awards.
But none of this would have happened it it had not been for chance encounter in Beverley Hills, Los Angeles between Keneally and Poldek Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor. Pfefferberg had tried for years to interest writers and film makers about the story of Schindler but it was only when Thomas Keneally walked into his shop that he got the response he wanted.
The story of that meeting and the visits the two men made to Poland, to talk to people whose lives Schindler saved, are recorded in Searching for Schindler. It’s worth reading this to understand some of the challenges Keneally encountered when he came to write his novel and the even bigger challenge of creating the film script. Here’s my review.
I’ve taken the plunge and joined Nonfiction November which is an annual challenge to read, critique and discuss non-fiction books for a month. There are five hosts who will take turns to post a topic for discussion each week.
This week’s topic comes from Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness is all about reflecting on the year so far via four questions.
What was your favourite nonfiction read of the year?
This is a toss up between two books with vastly different styles and topics. Do No Harm by Henry Marsh is the no-holds-barred memoir of a neurological surgeon in which he discusses some of the challenges of working with one of the most complex systems in the body. The Wicked Boyby Kate Summerscale is a hybrid of biography/real life crime that focuses on the case in 1895 of a young boy who killed his mother and was sentenced to spend an indefinite period in Broadmoor high security psychiatric hospital. On balance I’m going to settle for Do No Harm, largely because it was so different from anything I have read previously.
Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, the end of World War 1. The Royal British Legion in the UK has been marking that event by asking people to remember people who were killed while serving in the conflict. I’m trying to do my bit by researching the 22 men from the Commonwealth who share my maiden name and posting information about them on line. It’s meant I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading the war diaries; a day by day account; completed by commanding officers of battalions in the field. They can be uncomfortable reading at times – today for example I discovered one battalion lost more than 400 men in one attack in the final year of the war. I’ve also been dipping into a number of books which deal with different aspects of the war..
What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?
Do No Harm is the book I’ve talked most about this year. But my recommendation always comes with a caveat that this book does go into a lot of detail about surgical procedures. So if you are at all squeamish then this book is not for you.
What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?
The number of books of fiction I read each year far outweighs the number for non fiction. So I’m hoping that Nonfiction November will give me a bit of a nudge to get reading with the many books I have on the shelves. A lot of them are history related but I also have some about literature and culture.
Can you recite a poem without any notes or prompts?
When was the last time you learned a poem by heart?
For me the answers are:
- No. I know the starts of many poems and snatches of many others but if I were ever called upon to deliver one in public, I’d be a complete failure
- I suspect many people will say that they haven’t learned a poem since they were in school (and I don’t mean college; I mean the kind of school you attended before you were 18). My last experience is rather more recent than that but is still a good 10 years back. I was taking an Open University module which included poetry and needed to go into the exam confident I could quote from a good range of poems. So I pushed myself to learn large sections of about six poems.
I’ve since forgotten most of what I learned then.
Poetry, it has to be said, does not figure much in my life. I have some collections at home but can’t remember the last time I took one off the shelf let alone opened the book.
But then alone came National Poetry Day in the UK which resulted in a number of articles and broadcasts about poetry.
One was a feature article about a man called Gary Dexter who walks up to complete strangers in the street or the pub, asks them to name their favourite poem, and then offers to recite it in exchange for a small fee.
He started off with a repertoire of 30 poems (which took him a month to learn) but has now doubled this. He finds that the same requests crop up over and over again. Top of the list is Rudyard Kipling’s If, followed by This be the Verse by Philip Larkin and Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen.
Then there was a broadcast on Radio 4 One in which Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, disclosed she runs through poems to help her sleep. Pretty impressive since she learned these poems at school and she is now 71 years old. She’s backing a call for the public to learn poetry by heart to stave off “senior moments”. Judi Dench is also on board (astoundingly she can recite the whole of Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night’s Dream without notes!).
So I got to thinking that learning some poems by heart could be a) a good way to help keep my brain working and thus mitigate the potential of dementia and b) a means to encourage me to read more poetry.
I’m not setting myself a target for how many I try to learn or over what period. That would be one way to guarantee I lose interest.
But I’m going to attempt one a month. I don’t just want to learn the poem so I can recite it back; I’d like to be able to discuss its potential meaning and where it fits into the canon of that poet’s work.
But where to begin?
I could just start with the “nation’s favourite poems”, a list of the 30 most requested pieces as documented by Gary Dexter. There are some predictable choices in there – Daffodils by William Wordsworth and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas.
But I think I’d rather start with poems of which I already know some lines. It’s a wayof easing into the practice.
October is therefore the month that I tackle William Wordsworth. Not Daffodils or any of his Lucy poems but the sonnet Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
I chose this because it relates to one of my favourite parts of London and unusually for Wordsworth, who was not a great lover of the city, this sonnet shows that he finds beauty in a man-made scene. The rhyme scheme also helps with recalling the lines (yes I wanted an easy option to get me started…)