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Sally Walker (Eastbourne, UK)

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Former People: The Destruction of the Russian Aristocracy
Former People: The Destruction of the Russian Aristocracy
by Douglas Smith
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

5.0 out of 5 stars Epic in scope and detail, 8 Mar. 2015
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This book is epic in its scope and detail. It breaks new ground: it is the first book written about what happened to the aristocrats and nobility in Russia post revolution. Douglas Smith tells us what befell some of them intelligently, sympathetically and engagingly. He has concentrated on the experiences of two Russian families in particular: the Golitsyns and the Sheremetevs, but also peppers throughout his accounts of these families with details of what happened to some related and un-related families and individuals. All lost practically everything, and they had a lot to lose. Interestingly, many at some stage in their fall from immense wealth, lives lived in luxury and with great formality and often idleness and a great deal of ennui, agreed that the way the system was before, always cambered in their favour, was unjust and could not go on. Some even found that their lives were enriched by the experience. However, in the main the experiences were cataclysmic and devastating. Some no matter how bad things got steadfastly refused to leave Russia their motherland, whilst others saw the writing on the wall and fled to various ‘safe ports’ in the west.

Smith’s book must be the result of a profound amount of research, the length of the bibliography bears testimony to this. Of course and necessarily, the account of what happened to the upper layers of Russian society after October 1917 is interwoven with an account of the course of the revolution, the build up to it, the events that comprised it, its main actors and protagonists and what happened afterwards. You might think that the worst crimes against the Russian nobility were committed during and soon after the revolution, but in fact they continued for decades, most intensively under Stalin.

So in short this is not only the history of two Russian noble families and others but of Russia itself during the first half of the C20th. No mean feat to pull off, but Douglas Smith certainly does. I believe it will be a reference book for future historians for a long time to come, it is that good. Please don’t be put off my referring to it as a reference book because this is a good read, the pages will quickly turn as you become engrossed in the events that unfold before your eyes. You will quickly develop incredulity at the cruelty that men can exert on their fellow man, his wife and children. There is more than one moving story, but one in particular that is indeed heart searing.

I have learnt such a lot by reading this book and feel much less ignorant about Russia and its revolution. It has stimulated in me the desire to learn so much more.

This book definitely goes into my ‘a must read’ category.

Fathers and Sons. Translated by Rosemary Edmonds (Penguin Classics. no. L147.)
Fathers and Sons. Translated by Rosemary Edmonds (Penguin Classics. no. L147.)
by Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev
Edition: Unknown Binding

5.0 out of 5 stars A masterpiece, 12 Feb. 2015
By comparison with practically any of Tolstoy’s literature, (a contemporary of Turgenev) Fathers and Sons is wafer thin at just 237 pages. But my oh my, what a masterpiece it is, on a par, in my opinion, with the writing of the much better known and fated Tolstoy. Turgenev similarly gets into the heads of his characters and lays bare their innermost thoughts. He paints his characters, their actions, the buildings and landscapes through which they pass in depth and fine detail, to the extent that you feel as if you are diving into mid-C19th Russia.

Based upon my reading of Fathers and Sons I do not understand why Turgenev is somewhat overlooked. Be this as it may, Fathers and Sons, is dense with meaning and observations of human feelings and frailties.

At the time that Fathers and Sons was published in 1862, it was ground breaking because running throughout it is the propounding of Nihilism. The book’s main protagonist Bazarov is the vehicle used to put forward the central tenets of Nihilism. He says it like it is and brings most human emotions down to their base level and exposes the real motivation behind people’s actions. He speaks completely uncensored and whilst he is often hurtful, at the same time there is a searing honesty, integrity and even a purity to his character. One can’t help but feel that if we communicated with one another a bit more like Bazarov there would be far less misunderstanding and resulting unhappiness from much of human communication.

Another theme at the heart of this book is the universal one that has forever and will forever sweep down the ages, of young men, (people) reaching a certain age and looking at their parents with something akin to disdain and pity in their firm belief that they know so much more than their begetters. Corollary to this is the parental emotion, so beautifully and finely portrayed by Turgenev, of adoration and a longing for the presence of the offspring, who is fast disappearing into their own created adult life. There is thus much pathos in Fathers and Sons.

Key is that Turgenev was Russian and the narrative is set in Russia in 1861. So Bazarov, is if you like, delivering a message from the future, a Boshevik future: a future in which Romanticism has been annihilated.

1861 was the year in which the serfs gained their emancipation and so a reading of this work gives one a brilliant snapshot of Russian life at one of the pivotal moments in Russian history. It also lays bare the great divide between the have and the have-nots at that time in Russian society.

I highly recommend this book, you’ll enjoy the brilliance of the Turgenev’s writing and it will get you thinking.

The Russian Concubine
The Russian Concubine
by Kate Furnivall
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Action packed and clearly based on sound research - a very good read, 5 Feb. 2015
This review is from: The Russian Concubine (Paperback)
My reading definitely has a non-fiction bias to it and I tend to be a fiction snob, so for me to like a work of contemporary fiction is quite uncommon. I really enjoyed this book; it’s a good read. The writing is immediate, engaging and unpretentious.

It has the added interest in that the inception of this book was the author’s learning of her Russian ancestry. This is in fact the second book in a series of books. This is the first book of the series that I have read and the fact that I had not previously read the first did not detract at all to my enjoyment.

It is clear that Furnivall has undertaken a lot of research into the history of the time in question in Russia and China. I think most readers would wish to find out more about these two countries having read this book. A viewing of Furnivall’s website following reading this book is a worthy activity. You will find out much of the historical back-story to this book and the author’s reasoning behind the characters that she has created.

It’s not a book to pick up and put down, you need to keep reading I would say at least twice daily so that you don’t lose the thread of the plot, which is constantly twisting and turning. Furnivall does not shy away from developing gritty themes. The narrative is action packed and stuffed with many characters. The main character is a schoolgirl of fifteen, later in the plot sixteen years of age. Some of her words and actions are far beyond the scope of most girls of this age and there is a degree to which the reader has to suspend their disbelief and cynicism and just take the narrative at face value and enjoy for its own sake.

A good piece of historical fiction that is well worth spending your time reading.

Drink Time!: In the Company of Patrick Leigh Fermor: a Memoir
Drink Time!: In the Company of Patrick Leigh Fermor: a Memoir
by Dolores Payas
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.09

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A must read for all PLF devotees., 5 Feb. 2015
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This is a must read for all Patrick Leigh Fermour devotees. What it gives the reader which Artemis Cooper’s biography did not do, (please be clear I do not wish to take anything away from Cooper’s brilliant and comprehensive biography, I believe I am simply stating a fact) is a first hand account of what it was like to be in his company for an extended period of time. Albeit that the author’s contact with PLF came right at the very end of his life, when he was in his middle nineties, what comes across strongly is that he tried to maintain his normal lifestyle right up until the end. Whilst is hearing and sight were failing him, his wit, intellect and charm had not deserted him.

It’s a slim volume, but nonetheless of merit and substance. The writing is intelligent, sincere and heartfelt but never cloying.

Visually this book has been beautifully produced: the text punctuated with large full page or double page photographs that are relevant to the text immediately preceding. The scarlet endpapers are a nice touch too.

Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor's footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn - A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods & the Water and The Broken Road
Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor's footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn - A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods & the Water and The Broken Road
by Nick Hunt
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Hunt's writing is strong enough to be judged on its own merits and not to be found wanting, 20 Jan. 2015
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A really good first hand account of a young man’s walk from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn, undertaken in 2011. Hunt writes intelligently and interestingly, with vivid descriptions and observations. It’s a well-crafted book that deserves to be on a shelf alongside well-known travel writers. I hope he goes on to make further travels and to write about them.

Hunt was following in the footsteps of the great Patrick Leigh Fermour who walked the same route in 1933-34. PLF’s writing is incomparable and it is perhaps courageous of Hunt to try to follow in his literary footsteps. Hunt has a different writing style, but in my view it is strong enough to be judged on its own merits and not to be found wanting.

For all those who have read PLF’s a A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, (and if you have not I urge you to do so) and thought at the end I wondered what happened to the people that he spent sometime with along the way then Hunt’s book will give you some of the answers.

Just as PLF gave us a snapshot of European life at a particular time – pre-WW2 - so does Hunt - post WW2 and post the fall of communism in eastern Europe. Thus Walking the Woods and the Water makes for a fascinating read and device by which to make comparisons. Much has changed of course, but some things remain the same, for example the simmering feud between Hungarians and Romanians over land.

As does PLF, so does Hunt, give us an account of the changes in the landscapes, languages, cultures, physical appearance and attitudes of the people of the eight countries through which he walks. This all goes to show us how diverse Europe and its people are.

I thoroughly recommend this book, you’ll not be disappointed.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Cooper, Artemis (2012) Hardcover
Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Cooper, Artemis (2012) Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars A well-written and comprehensive account of his life, 11 Jan. 2015
Having read A Time For Gifts and Between The Woods and The Water I wanted to find out what happened next to PLF and what kind of man he turned out to be; how he lived his life. PLF An Adventure has certainly satisfied my quest. It is a well-written, engaging and comprehensive account of his life from beginning to end. Cooper has clearly done a lot of research, helped by the mass of correspondence that PLF wrote over his long life.

In addition being the grandaughter of one of PLF's long-term armours / friends - Diana Cooper - Cooper had probably known PLF since she was a young child and was therefore well placed to write this biography. But this is not a book about the Paddy she knew at all. Indeed the author only at one point says I was there and I witnessed PLF do this. Thus to her credit she keeps herself off stage. Given that she will have a fount of fond memories of him, I presume, it is also to her credit that she has written a very balanced account of his life - she passes no judgement, just tells it like it was. So Cooper's biography of PLF is not littered with her take on him and this leaves the reader free to form their own opinion.

I thoroughly recommend this book.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars A perfect blend of scientific journalism and the telling of a very human story, 7 Jan. 2015
This book is the result of an admirable and impressive amount of research including first hand and extensive contact with Henrietta Lacks’s family. It is a perfect blend of scientific journalism and the telling of a very human story. It is many layered and cleverly constructed. The writing is straightforward and highly accessible.

The human story of Henrietta Lacks is long overdue. That of her early and excruciating painful death from cervical cancer, the subsequent use of her cancer cells for scientific research without consent and the knock-on effect of this upon her family. The straightforward writing style that Skloot has adopted I found made the poignancy of Henrietta’s eldest daughter’s life, in particular, all the more stark.

It is a real eye-opener for the likes of me a relatively pampered middle class women living in southern England to read about the degree of poverty that abounds in the black population in Baltimore in the US in the C21st. This poverty I know will not be restricted to Baltimore. Skloot lifts the lid on the eternal divide between the have’s and the have-not’s in America and the discrimination that endures.

I find it very easy to be switched off by science but Skloot presents the scientific information in such an easily accessible manner that I have gained a lot of information about the way that cancer cells operate. It’s a hit between the eyes about the thorny and disparate issues concerning tissue donation and the rights of the donar, or, most likely the lack of rights of the donar and their successors.

This book is a credit to the author, a real tour de force of effort, which I hope proves to be the first of many. I

I therefore highly recommend this book.

Life Class: The Selected Memoirs of Diana Athill
Life Class: The Selected Memoirs of Diana Athill
by Diana Athill
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A refreshingly frank telling of one woman's life and how she feels about it, 6 Jan. 2015
Most memoirs / biographies are written by people who have either been in the public eye or have lived a particularly noteworthy life. This series of memoirs, collected together into Life Class, is exceptional in that they have been written by a woman not famous, infamous or lived a life of particular note. However, her memoirs represent a reading gem.

Not only is the writing well crafted but also she reaches out to her readers with her refreshing frankness as to what her life has comprised. Born in 1917 and with some of her memoirs published not until this century you learn about life in Britain throughout much of the twentieth century.

What makes her memoirs distinctive is that Athill writes about how she has felt about her life. She expresses what many of us feel, or have felt at some stage in our lives, but often don’t talk about, perhaps most notably about the experience of ageing and of being old in Somewhere Towards The End. At no point does she descend into self-pity of self-indulgence. On the contrary she is often laugh out loud witty.

Of particular interest too is her telling within Stet of the behind the scenes of book publishing, her career having being that of an editor. She explains the role of the editor and talks about the experiences she had in working with six authors in particular. This was very revealing as to the often quirky and in some cases tortured psyche of writers.

I highly recommend this book. Don’t be put off by the length of this book, your eyes will fly through its pages.

H is for Hawk
H is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £8.99

41 of 47 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A heavy read, 28 Dec. 2014
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This review is from: H is for Hawk (Hardcover)
There is no doubt about it this is an extremely intelligently written book. Intelligent writing is what I always seek and when I find it I’m halfway there to a good read. The other half of course depends upon the content.

After an initial flourish, in which I thought this book to be one of the best that I have ever read, I just got bogged down in its darkness.

It’s a blend of the author writing about her passage through the grief she experienced following the sudden death of her father; the coping mechanism that she adopted of acquiring and training a young female goshawk; and a brief biography of T H White, an author who wrote, amongst other books, The Goshawk.

Macdonald’s grief spiralled down into depression and T H White, we learn, was one of life’s outsiders, who exerted energy to try to fit in and then gave up and instead tried to connect with a goshawk. In short he lived an angst-ridden life, with little joy. So what this book is about, in the main, is a woman writing about a very difficult time in her life that she struggled to get through and weaving into her memoir a brief biography about an author who lived a tortuous life. Both sought consolation not to say salvation in their relationship with a hawk.

Hawks are carnivorous birds. Once Macdonald reached the stage where she could let her hawk fly free there are recounted episodes of the hawk’s hunting escapades, some ending with Macdonald finishing the prey off herself.

Whilst there are highly descriptive accounts of the landscapes through which Macdonald and her hawk traversed, for me this did little to alleviate the heaviness of the intervening passages. Indeed I came to dread reading another passage about T H White because his treatment of his first hawk was misguided and often cruel.

Macdonald recounts how T H White in response to the publication of his book The Goshawk, received a letter from a man who berated him for his cruelty to his hawk and wrote: ‘Is there not enough cruelty in the world without adding to it for one’s amusement or hobby?’

Now I am NOT suggesting that Macdonald was cruel or unkind to her hawk, but I did think at various points that given that goshawks have never been domesticated, would it not be better to let them live as nature intended, flying free in the wild. But perhaps I am missing the point?

I so much wanted to like this book and truly expected to love this book given the rave reviews that it has received, but I found it a heavy read. I suspect mine may be a lone voice in the dark, but I have to be true to myself when I review a book.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 12, 2015 7:25 PM GMT

Between the Woods and the Water: on Foot to Constantinople from the Hook of Holland - The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates
Between the Woods and the Water: on Foot to Constantinople from the Hook of Holland - The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates
by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Simply superb, 25 Dec. 2014
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The sequel to A Time For Gifts recounts Leigh Fermour's walk across Hungary and Rumania, starting at precisely the point that his first book finished on the bridge at Esztergom on the Hungarian border. (A Time For Gifts told of the author's journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Esztergom; a journey undertaken when he was just eighteen and nineteen years old, undertaken in 1933 - 1934. His objective was to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, as it was then known). For those who have not yet read A Time For Gifts I strongly urge you to do so before beginning this book. Whilst it is not essential to read it, it will put this walk into context.

Leigh Fermor wrote this book some fifty years following the end of his journey; it was published in 1986. So it is a much older and wiser man looking back at and writing about his journey. I believe this adds much to this book.

This leg of his journey is dominated by him hopping from one gentleman's mansion to another, with a few open air sleeps, (or sojourns in rural inns) either alone in the landscape or with gypsies and peasant shepherd families. Amongst the landed gentry Leigh Fermour was passed somewhat like a parcel from one wealthy family to another. He says himself that staying in such places is not what he originally intended, rather he expected to live more the life of a nomadic tramp, however he did not regret getting caught up in the lives of Hungarian and Rumanian minor aristocracy because within a matter of just a few years, with the outbreak of WW2, their way of life and indeed many of them themselves, were completely erased. This can only add poignancy to your reading of this book.

Another attraction is Leigh Fermour's youth at the time that he walked through these countries; the fact that he was essentially care free. This feeling I found infectious and slid off the pages into my inner being and made me remember parts of my own younger carefree days.

As with A Time For Gifts what absolutely makes this book is its superb, mellifluous and intelligent writing. The author's intelligence shines through every page. This is so much more than a journal, a day-by-day account of his journey. He describes so well the landscapes that he passes through; the people that he meets; and the architecture of the towns and cities he walks to. Much stimulates in him wide ranging thoughts and perceptions. Too you will learn much of European history by reading this book.

I can't recommend this book enough.

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