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Non-Fiction November: perfect couples


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.



The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society – Review

GuernseyI’ll admit to a high degree of nervousness in writing this review. The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society has after all been one of the publishing success stories of the last few years, regularly earning 4 and 5 stars from Goodreads members. So in declaring that I didn’t care for this book I know I am going very much against the tidal wave of opinion.

My copy from the library came with a sticker on the front cover declaring this to be a ‘mood busting book’. That in itself should have been sufficient warning. My experience with this kind of reading is pretty much the same as my reactions to anything described as ‘feel good’ or ‘warm hearted’. I see the attraction but seldom feel excited by these books. However The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society is the book club selection for May so I felt I had to give it a go.

It’s set in 1946 London where the writer Juliet Ashton, who’s had a tremendous run of success with a newspaper column turned novel, is looking for an idea for her next book. A letter from a stranger in Guernsey piques her interest with its oblique reference to a society with a rather bizarre name. It’s the beginning of a correspondence with several islanders who reveal details of life during the time of the German Occupation of their island. The literary society got started as a way of covering up a get together during which a bunch of neighbours feasted on an illicit pig. Juliet eventually decides she has to go to Guernsey to meet her new-found friends in person. 

This is told in epistolary fashion with letters whizzing between Juliet in London and her friends in Guernsey, between Juliet and her friend in Scotland, and her agent who takes off for a mercy mission to Australia. Plus there are letters between Juliet and her suave new boyfriend (why they couldn’t use the phone to arrange their dinner dates I don’t understand – they were not that rare for people in their class in the 40s) . Herein lay the first of my problems with the novel — there wasn’t enough variation in the voices used for the different correspondents. The Guernsey letter writers all sounded so similar that it became difficult to see them as anything more than ciphers.

The tone in which the story is relayed grated on me. Juliet was obnoxiously and relentlessly gushing, greeting every new piece of information from her pen friends with wide-eyed enthusiasm.  And those pen friends, gosh weren’t they just such CHARACTERS!!  A bitter shrew, a salt of the earth wood carver, a saintly woman who sacrifices her life for a Polish prisoner and a cute kid ; they all come across like people from central casting rather than people you might actually encounter.

If those flaws are not enough, you can throw into the mix a love angle and a denouement that you’d have to be a complete idiot not to see coming even half way through the book. It all gets tied up in a nice Happy Ever ribbon.

It gives me no pleasure to point out the defects of this book. I feel rather mean for doing so when I consider that it was written by a woman who had a life-long dream to become an author became critically ill before she could finish this, her debut novel. Diagnosed with cancer Mary Ann Shaffer asked her niece (a published author in her own right) to complete the book.

The result isn’t completely without merit of course. We get served some insights about the dark reality of the Occupation of Guernsey to counterbalance the light and frothy tone and a few comic moments. I enjoyed hearing of one character whose repeated re-reading of Seneca’s Letters while a member of the literary society saved him from being a drunk and of another islander who made the mistake of reading a cookery book to society members who had been surviving on turnip soup for weeks. 

But such moments are rare jewels that are not enough to make the novel sparkle. 

A lion roared but did we listen?

ChurchillIn the dark days early in World War 2, Britain stood alone in the fight against the Nazi regime; one small island defiant in the face of a vastly superior force. What roused the people of Britain and sustained them through those terrible years was the impassioned defiant words of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. His speeches and radio broadcasts gave the nation the courage to fight against all the odds and in the face of catastrophic human loss.
That’s the view presented in scores of films and made-for-tv programmes about Churchill’s political career and the history of World War 2. The speeches themselves have acquired an iconic status on a par with Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” oration and the Gettysburg address. Phrases such as ‘their finest hour” or “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” are the stuff of legend. But the nature of the Churchill effect is rather more complex than we’ve been led to believe according to Richard Toye, a professor of history at the University of Exeter. In The Roar of the Lion, his newly published book on Churchill’s wartime speeches, Toye argues that the effects of Churchill’s speeches have been wildly exaggerated.
Debunking of heroes is such a popular pastime, that we’ve become used to authors who set out to re-write history in order to prove their own theory. Toye’s book bears no relation to works of that ilk. The Roar of the Lion is, instead, an extensively researched analysis of the reactions at home and abroad to Churchill’s wartime rhetoric conveyed via radio and parliamentary appearances.
Toye examined personal diaries kept by ordinary members of the British public together with reports from Mass Observation ( a sociological research organisation that tracked public morale throughout much of the war using a team of observers and interviewers) and Ministry of Home Intelligence Division reports which tracked the reception to ministerial pronouncements between May 1940 and Dec 1944.
While acknowledging that the view in some quarters of society was that Churchill’s speeches  expressed the will of the whole nation to win the war and made ‘brave men from the weakest’,  Toye shows that this was not a uniformly held point of view.  Instead there were  pockets of dissent and criticism much larger than previously thought, with concerns expressed by fellow politicians and members of the civil service as well as  the ordinary ‘man on the Clapham omnibus.’  One speech delivered in October 1940 was for example considered a ‘good fruity speech’ by an electricity worker from Hampshire though a teacher further north in Northumberland apparently was shocked at the relish by which Churchill described the zealous efforts of the Royal Navy to hunt down U boats.
Some of the reactions Toye identified could be considered as typical cynical responses towards politicians, such as the report from one Mass Observation contributor who overheard a bus passenger in 1942 comment that:
 ‘well, he is very good at speeches – lovely speeches ‘e makes – but ‘e don’t do much.  Grunts of approval all round.
Toye is careful to point out that such examples – and there are many quoted in his book – don’t provide definitive evidence of exactly how many people held a particular view. But they do evidence that there was a far greater diversity of responses than the Churchill myth factory has led us to believe.
Yes they were speeches that stimulated,energised, invigorated and excited many people. But they were also speeches which caused depression and disappointment in many others.
Even some of Churchill’s most famous speeches brought a muted response. Toye reports that the ‘Dunkirk speech’ in which he pledged to fight on the beaches, the air, the fields and the streets but never to surrender, was received enthusiastically in America by press and the country’s President but the British response was more muted where the reference to fighting alone if necessary created apprehension among the populace. One housewife said she felt ‘sick’ after reading the speech.
RoarThe most fascinating aspect of the book for me however came from the way Toye shows the processes Churchill used to create his speeches. The romantic image of Churchill as “a lone genius conjuring masterly speeches out of the ether”. Using drafts from the archives Toye’s shows that the text of the speeches was actually the result  of a collaborative approach in which political colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic provided him with suggestions and commented on his drafts.  Churchill was not averse to ‘borrowing’ phrases and ideas from other people and even recycling phrases that he felt worked well.  One example shows that the tone and some of the word patterns of his Dunkirk speech, can be traced to a memo by William Phillip Simms, the foreign editor of an influential chain of American newspapers.
The content was only one part of the story however. Turning the facts and the ideas into a richly evocative speech was entirely down to Churchill’s careful preparation which often involved him testing patterns of words out loud until he was satisfied with the resonance. They were skills he learned by observing his father Sir Randolph Churchill and then honing them through repeated practice and in some cases trial and error  – in his early political life he learned his text by heart so he could speak without reference to notes. That approach ended after one highly embarrassing occasion when he stood in the Commons – and forgot his lines. After that he always spoke from prepared notes.
It’s insights of that nature that help to make this a highly readable book. One of the best reads I’ve had this year.
My copy of The Roar of the Lion was supplied courtesy of the publishers via NetGalley.
Roar of the Lion is published by Oxford University Press
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