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.
I love buying non fiction books. Reading them — well that’s another story. My bookshelves are crowded with business books and books on world issues that I bought fully intending to read but never actually doing so.
Rachel Carson’s environmental classic Silent Spring has formed a very cosy relationship with Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats and Charles Handy’s The Empty Raincoat over the years the three of them have nestled on the bookshelf. At least I’ve opened the Carson book which is more than I can say about The Dragon and the Elephant: China, India and the New World Order.
Out of the ones I have managed to read, here are a few of my favourites.
Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… one School at a Time
Greg Mortenson was a registered nurse and mountain-climber whose life was transformed when he lost his way descending the K2 mountain in Pakistan. He was saved by villagers who nursed him back to health. As a thank you he pledged to build them a school. Eventually he raised enough support to build not one but 55 schools in the remote and troubled region and Mortenson became a humanitarian committed to reducing poverty and promoting education for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The veracity of Mortenson’s account has now been challenged unfortunately but this is still a good read.
The Unequelled Self – by Claire Tomalin
This is a magnificent biography of a man whose diaries give us an eye witness account of the tumultuous events of sixteenth century England. The execution of a King, the Great Plague and the Fire of London, Pepys lived through them all, sometimes fearing for his own life but somehow surviving and thriving in fortune and status. Tomalin’s biography reveal the multi faceted man who was a superb naval administrator as well as a bon viveur.
Maximum City by Suketu Mehta
In part this is a travelogue, but it’s also a memoir and a journalistic essay on the nature of one of the fastest growing cities in the world — Mumbai. Mehta was born in the city but lived most of his youth in North America. On his return to Mumbai he turns an uncompromising eye on the nature of the city. At times it’s a hilarious rendition of the frustrations of living in this city – a place he labels The City of No simply because, no matter what the question, the answer will invariably be no. It’s also a city whose inhabitants cope with its phenomenal increase in population size by ‘adjusting’. The train may be full to the brim but there is always room for one more if everyone inside just budges up a bit.
Other times, the sheer impossibility of getting anything done make you question whether this country can ever really rival China as an economic superpower.