The Long Walk – Slavomir Rawicz

Wowsers, there’s a book and a half.

This is the incredible story of a group of political prisoners who escape from Siberia and walk all the way to northern India. It’s amazing what these people went through, and equally amazing is the welcome they get from people they meet on the way. The hospitality of strangers is so heart-warming it makes you tingle slightly; particularly when you’re part of a culture that’s completely the other way, and sees someone helping someone else as being cute but a bit weird.

The struggle that these people went through is indescribable; their trek through ice, snow, mountains, desert, exposed areas and all while they were seriously malnourished and exhausted. This is a genuine feat of tremendous endurance, far more so than any scheduled expedition. These people traversed the Himalayas with empty bellies and homemade moccasins! I could quite happily read this all over again.

One Young Man: the simple and true story of a clerk who enlisted in 1914, who fought on the Western Front for nearly two years, was severely wounded at the Battle of the Somme, and is now on his way back to his desk – J E Hodder-Williams

Not a massively catchy title. This is a short but beautiful book, mostly it is written by the man himself and edited by Hodder-Williams, with a few comments by him also. It gives a really good idea of what went on in the trenches, and what life was like for ‘Tommy’.

As he says himself: ‘Isn’t it wonderful how many sorrows the British army can drown in a cup of tea?’ I reckon it’s changed a bit since then though.

There is one particular bit, in which the soldier writes about his experiences with the YMCA (while it was still effective, and before it had completely sold out on its origins): ‘I am sure everyone was overstocked with chocolates and cigarettes, for we all kept returning to the counter to buy something just for the sake of a smile or a ‘How are you getting on, Tommy?’ from one of our hostesses. The whistle blew and we all made a rush for our trucks. The ladies stood in a body at the end of the paltform, and as each truck passed waved and wished us good luck. The noise we made was deafening; we cheered and cheered until the little group of England’s unknown heroines on the platform passed from sight. Our hearts were very full.’ That just about says it all. I had to pause a little bit at this point. The line between life and death in this book is so thin, and these acts of kindness really hit home almost as much for the reader as they must have done for the soldiers involved.

There’s also the camaraderie and humour of the trenches too: ‘We have a rare lot of ditties. We often sing across ‘Has anyone seen a German Band,’ or ‘I want my Fritz to play twiddly bits on his old trombone.’ We really have a good bit of fun at times; other days are – crudely, but truthfully putting it – ‘Hell’.’

It’s so sad that these people had to give so much. I wonder what they’d think if they were able to come back. That’s probably not a good thing to wonder.

This is the sort of book you need to read now and again. Like when you forget that Britain hasn’t always been like this. Sometimes it’s been Great.

Nazi Germany and the Jews 1933-1945 – Saul Friedländer

This book is a must-read, and yet frightening on so many levels. Frightening because of the extreme cruelty, persecution and violence that was inflicted on the Jews, but not less frightening because the various churches didn’t speak out against it – only pockets of Christians protested and tried to do what they could. The institutions themselves showed their true colours – which begs the question, if the situation were to present itself today, would the churches do the same again? Quite possibly.  What’s also frightening is the denial. The Jews didn’t believe what was happening to them, and likewise German society didn’t either. It’s frightening what terrible things can happen in a civilised country. It’s frightening that we don’t learn from our mistakes. And it’s frightening that otherwise good people were part of the problem because they did precisely nothing. God forbid that it will happen again.

Beautifully written by a person who was involved at the time. He uses a lot of sources, mainly of people who were recording events in the hope that someone would find their writing after they had perished, and use it to broadcast the truth of the times. What’s particularly refreshing is that Mr Friedländer says it like it is, and calls a murder a murder.

 

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

Wonderful book, I think this is the fourth time I’ve read it, and I’d forgotten what a well-rounded, well-written book it is. It’s a longish book, so it’s perfect for a holiday, or a time when you’re able to spend hours devouring it.

The characters are well drawn, Mr Rochester is tremendous and multi-dimensional, and what I noticed this time round was that Miss Brontë writes an accurate account of what it’s like to be ‘zapped’ by the Holy Spirit. Interesting, although it shouldn’t be surprising, that people were familiar with it then too.

An truly amazing work of literature.

The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

If you croak before reading this, you’ve misspent your time. Not only is it an unusual story, it’s well-written (and well-translated), the plot is comprehensive, although not too confusing, the characters are well-developed – and it’s big enough to keep you occupied for days! Despite its 1243 pages, it’s one I can see I’ll be going back to. I’m a little bit in love with the Count…

This book also gets the award for the characters that spend the longest time shuddering; read it and you’ll see what I mean.

Das Boot – Lothar Gunther Buchheim

This book has a partiuclarly melancholic beauty. It gives an idea what it must have been like to be on a submarine, the seemingly interminable periods of inaction, the irritability and the boredom, the stress of a sudden altercation with an enemy ship, the thinness of that line between life and death, and the sheer desperation that leads to pondering the existence of a fly on the U-boot. Herr Buchheim easily manages to develop an atmosphere of closeness, humidity, staleness and camaraderie. Because of the depth of feeling and the spread of emtions this is easily a book to get lost in, only to feel exhausted when it is finished. Sublime.

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

Jane Austen is the queen of character development, probably because she’s so socially observant – no quirk or defect seems to escape her, and they appear in the characters of this book, particularly Mssrs Wickham, Collins, Lucas and even Darcy. This is a true classic because not only does it combine good characters with a good plot, it’s beautifully written, scarily insightful and has plenty of social comment. People don’t change, and although we don’t say to each other ‘My dear, would you care for a turn about the room? It’s so refreshing!’ or similar, we’re basically the same animals driven by the same things and subject to the same foibles. And that’s what makes Miss Austen such a genius.

The Importance of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde

Mr Wilde is the king of the slightly complicated plot where all the messy bits get tied up at the end. The plot is great, the ending is gratifyingly predictable and there are some tremendous lines in it (not including the infamous ‘handbag’ one that gets murdered so often by am-drammers). The only negatives are that because Mr Wilde is so incredibly clever and funny, ALL of his characters sound like him, and therefore they sound alike, so when reading the play (rather than watching it) it’s sometimes necessary to keep checking whose talking. Massively entertaining though.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself – Harriet Ann Jacobs

This is an honest and eye-opening account of the reality of slavery in the Southern states of America during the close of the nineteenth century. Although Miss Jacobs avoids adding detail that would be inapproriate and upsetting to her nineteenth century audience, it remains hard-hitting in the brutality of behaviour shown by those people who considered themselves superior to the people they were oppressing, neglecting even to recognise them as human beings. It’s an absolutely must-read book, helps to prevent you taking your own blessings for granted.

Dangerous Liaisons – Choderlos de Laclos

This is a masterpiece, written in the format of a collection of letters written and sent between the main characters. Quite easily because of the style, the book could be stilted and difficult to read, but it flows. As with any seriously good work of this kind, there are different levels of messages that lie beneath the plot. The characters show that in life we are always a slave to something, it’s up to us to choose what. The two principal characters shun falling in love at all costs, and therefore fall prey to becoming a slave to vanity and selfishness, destroying the lives of others in order to prove to themselves and to each other that they are not in love, ending in their own destruction. It shows the negativity of such cynicism, and the self-destruction that occurs when that cycnism is taken to extreme. Another level served to show, at the time the book was first published, what the landed classes were deemed to be capable of. This type of writing fuelled the French Revolution. It also showed that society of the time (not so much now) was the great regulator of behaviour; anything might be got away with – until it entered the public sphere.

On many levels, this is a truly great, enjoyable, absorbing book.

Watership Down – Richard Adams

It’s probably a good idea to avoid the film; this book could never have justice done to it on the screen. Although it is ostensibly a book for older children, its sensitivity and subtlety mean that probably the huge majority of older children will enjoy the plot and the characters, but not understand the undertones and nuances. There are some biblical concepts within the plot, some of them reasonably overt, and some less so; and the plot is not the usual predictable pap that kids seem to get fed these days. It is a masterpiece of writing, its entire concept is unusual, its characters are well-drawn and well-rounded – and in short it is one of those rare books that you really can bury yourself in, only to emerge out the other side with perhaps a slightly different view of things. This is a lovable book that while being gentle is at the same time powerful, and well before its time. In fact, were it to be written today, it would still be ahead of its time. Beautiful.

Around the World in 80 Days – Jules Verne

This book is wasted on kids! Although this most certainly is an adventure story, there’s a lot more to it than that – and what’s more, it’s so brilliantly written, and has such excellent character sketches that it really needs an adult audience to do it justice. Could Phileas Fogg be the first literary character to show decidedly autistic tendencies? Who knows – but the depths of each character, the plot, and sheer novelty of the story, is testament to the genius of the brain that cooked it up. It would be wrong not to read this book.

The Phantom of the Opera – Gaston Leroux

A perfect book for a rainy day. Leroux is reminiscent of Wilkie Collins in his plot, characters and style, and yet here’s a tremendously, deliciously French book. And just like Victor Hugo’s ‘Hunchback’ he crafts a beautiful ending giving an all round eminently gratifying reading experience with a hefty daub of gothicness. The film/musical does violence to the subtleties of the plot and characters; yet here is a story that is in turns graphic, violent, romantic, tragic and at last, wistful – entirely deserving of a place on the ‘Bucket list’. Ignore the musical – just read the original!

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Jean-Dominique Bauby

One of the best books in the world. Mr Bauby was the editor of French Elle magazine when he had a massive stroke leaving him with a paralysis so severe he was only able to communicate by opening and closing one eye. And that’s how he dictated this book. The book is beautifully and at times humorously written, and a s a result is poignant and uplifting rather than depressing. The book is a masterpiece, but also, in the writing of it, Mr Bauby found himself to be a better, more honest person than he thought.