The Bird Catcher

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Today is Holocaust Memorial Day.  This isn’t a particularly good Holocaust film, or a particularly good film at all, but it deserves credit for telling one of the many lesser-known Holocaust stories.  It seems as if every month there’s another new book called The X of Auschwitz or The Y of Auschwitz.  I’m not for a moment criticising those books, but there’s a lot of focus on the death camps, and on what happened in certain countries; and there are other stories to be told as well.

The beautiful, historical Norwegian city of Trondheim is probably one of the last places in mainland Europe which you’d associate with the Holocaust, but it was occupied by the Nazis for five years.  In the October of 1942, it was placed under martial law.  Dozens of people were arrested and executed, and the entire Jewish population of the town rounded up.  In this film, our heroine Esther rather improbably escapes, and ends up disguised as a boy and working on a farm run by Nazi sympathisers … before blurting out her true identity in a sauna full of naked Norwegian Nazis (honestly), and escaping by sledge across a frozen lake to Sweden.  As I said, it’s not the greatest film ever, and the story’s more than a bit unconvincing, but it does draw attention to the little-told story of the Holocaust in Norway.

The relationship between Esther, or, as she calls herself, Ola, and the family on the farm is complex.  She’s originally taken there by the son of the family, Axsel, who’s got cerebral palsy.  Axsel and Esther form a close bond.  Axsel’s father, Johann, sees Ola/Esther as the strong son he always wanted … apparently not noticing that she’s actually a girl, even though they’re in close physical proximity for a lot of the time.  Johann’s wife Anna is having an affair with a Nazi officer, but, when she finds out who Esther really is, is quite sympathetic towards her – and, at the end of the film, when Esther returns to Trondheim and Anna is there, being spat at by locals as a Nazi sympathiser, Esther shows her sympathy in return.

The Nazis are around all the time – the German Nazis, and also the members of the Norwegian far right party led by Vidkun Quisling.  There’s no mention of the Resistance.  There’s no mention of anyone helping Jews to escape: Norway didn’t see the mass rescue that Denmark did, but about two-thirds of Norwegian Jews were still able to leave.  Nobody’s wearing paper clips attached to their clothes.  There’s no mention of Telavag, the town destroyed by the Nazis in a horrific atrocity which saw all the men either executed or sent to a concentration camp and all the women and children imprisoned.  There’s certainly no reference to the brave Norwegians who sailed from Bergen to Scotland in little boats, to be trained by British forces and return as saboteurs.

That’s very unusual for a story set in wartime Norway: the extent to which there was collaboration is still controversial, but I certainly wasn’t expecting the film to show so many characters as being pro-Nazi, with barely a mention of any who weren’t.  It’d be interesting to know how this film was received in Norway, if it’s been shown there.

To get back to the story, after the bit with the naked Nazis in the sauna, Esther and Axsel flee together but, sadly, the ice cracks and Axsel drowns.  Esther makes it to Sweden, survives, and returns to Norway after the war.  You do wonder why, if neutral Sweden was so close, she didn’t try to escape across the border sooner.  But a lot of things about this film don’t bear up to too much scrutiny.  The best thing about it is all the glorious shots of snowy Norwegian scenery.  But, as I said, it does show one of the many little-known stories of the Holocaust.  There are a lot of them.

 

Timothy’s Book by Verlyn Klinkenborg (Facebook group reading challenge)

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Timothy, who really existed, was an 18th century tortoise, the pet of Hampshire curate and naturalist Gilbert White.  You may wonder why I have been reading a book about a tortoise.  It’s because this month’s reading challenge is to read a book in which the narrator is an animal.  And, as animals go, tortoises are rather nice.  They do not disturb the whole neighbourhood by barking, jump up at innocent passers-by whilst their owners say “Oh, he/she’s only playing,” (as if that makes it OK) or make a mess in the street, the park or other people’s gardens.  Also, there’s not a lot of historical fiction narrated by any sort of animal.

Verlyn Klinkenborg is the author’s real name, BTW.  Great name.  His wife’s kept her maiden name.

At first, I thought this was going to be rather boring.  They don’t go anywhere, and they don’t do anything very much, so all Timothy can do is comment on what’s going on in the village where they live, which isn’t an awful lot.  However, Timothy’s an attractive character.  She (the author, despite being a naturalist, apparently couldn’t tell girl tortoises from boy tortoises, hence the name)’s been identified as being of a species found on the Turkish Mediterranean coast; so we hear, rather sadly, how she feels about being taken from the wild and brought to an alien environment, with a totally different climate, and kept as someone’s pet with no hope of meeting any other tortoises.

We also hear her observations about humans – in particular, how they’re enslaved by nature.  They can’t go for very long without needing to eat and drink.  And, even in the age of the British Agricultural Revolution – Timothy comes to Hampshire in 1740, and the book ends in 1793 – they are at the mercy of nature.  Heavy rainfall, or a prolonged dry spell, or a plague of insects, and they’re in trouble.  I’m trying not to read every book I pick up with Covid-era blinkers on, but it’s difficult not to, and all of that rang very true.  Even more so in the light of last week’s awful floods.

It’s all rather miserable.  And it’s not very exciting.  Most people’s lives aren’t very exciting, but you don’t write books about them.  It’s quite well-written, and you find yourself getting rather attached to Timothy, but this isn’t particularly my sort of book.  But, hey, each to their own, and it does no harm to read something different once in a while.

It’s A Sin – Channel 4

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I’m fairly sure that this is the first TV series to be named after a Pet Shop Boys song.  I’d assumed that “It’s A Sin” was going to be the theme tune, but, disappointingly, it wasn’t – although we did get plenty of other amazing ’80s music throughout this first episode.  More to the point, it’s, rather strangely, the first British drama series to focus on the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s.

Unlike Philadelphia and the Mark Fowler EastEnders storyline in the early ’90s, this didn’t start with someone having already been diagnosed with HIV and or AIDS, but with four young gay lads leaving home to start new lives in London, in 1981.  All hopes and dreams, bright lights and parties, pubs and clubs.  Well, for three of them, Ritchie, Roscoe and Ash, along with their friend Jill, anyway.  The fourth lad, Colin, was shy and quiet and sat in watching TV.  I’m glad that Colin was there.  Not everyone can be confident and outgoing.

And it was good fun: they had good fun.  It was much lighter than I’d expected it to be.  I knew that there was a storyline involving a confrontation between Roscoe and his homophobic religious family and I was expecting something like the very emotional scene in Pose which saw Damon being physically thrown out of the house by his stepfather and having to sleep on a park bench.  Instead, Roscoe just told them where to shove it, and was next seen having a wonderful time partying the night away in gay bars, going through one bloke after the other.

Sadly, there are probably more Damons than Roscoes, but Russell T Davies has spoken very movingly of wanting those who died of AIDS to be remembered for the joy of their lives and not just for the tragedy of their deaths, and also of wanting to pay tribute to the friends, relatives, medical staff and activists who supported them.

Boys just wanna have fun … and it’s all so poignant, because we know what lies ahead, and we know that some of these young lads are not even going to see their 30th birthdays, and that those who do are going to be mourning the loss of some of the people closest to them.  Towards the end of the first episode, Colin’s colleague was hospitalised with a mysterious illness … and, as soon as we saw the lesion on his face, we knew what it was.  But, in (by then) 1982 none of them had any idea.  Then he died.

In the next episode, we’re – ironically, given that this was filmed before the Covid-19 pandemic –  going to see how some of the characters refuse to believe that AIDS exists, and think that it’s a bizarre rumour spread by homophobic sections of the media, or else think that it’s been released deliberately by a Soviet laboratory.  Russell T Davies has talked about people trying to raise awareness being thrown out of gay pubs and told to take their leaflets with them.  It’s difficult to accept that there’s a deadly disease out there.  Until you start hearing about people dying from it.

Speaking of filming, most of it was filmed in Manchester, Bolton and Darwen, and it’s co-produced by Nicola Shindler from Whitefield.  There – that’s got my local plugs in!   We will apparently see the characters walking round a shopping centre in Eccles.  I know that people really need to know that.

The series starts in 1981, the year of the first death from AIDS in the UK. I was only 6 in 1981, and I can’t actually remember when I first became aware that HIV and AIDS existed.  We saw a character reading a newspaper article about a “mysterious illness” with no name.  That was in September 1982.   HIV wasn’t even identified until 1983.  But I do remember exactly when I first became aware of just how serious the AIDS situation had become, and that was in the summer of 1985.  Rock Hudson had pulled out of Dynasty due to ill-health, and, after it’d initially been given out that he had liver cancer, it was announced that he had AIDS.

He sadly died a few months later, aged 59.  As ever, a story about a big name celeb made a lot more headlines than a story involving ordinary people, but it was quite a pivotal moment, because he was the first really famous person to say that he had AIDS.  My friends and I were absolutely obsessed with Dynasty at the time, and older people obviously knew him as one of the world’s leading film stars, and it did raise awareness of what was happening.  What it couldn’t do, at that stage, was change attitudes and educate people.

In fact, there was quite a lot of controversy, because his character had snogged Krystle Carrington, and people were genuinely concerned that he might have infected Linda Evans, who’d been unaware of his condition.  When you think that we’ve spent most of the last year being told not to get within 6 feet of anyone who’s not in our household/bubble, those fears in 1985 don’t seem as strange as they would have done a couple of years ago.  At that time, even medical professionals were saying that it was inadvisable to kiss – as in full-scale kiss, not a peck on the cheek – someone who was HIV positive.  Most people didn’t believe some of the wilder scare stories, that you could catch it from toilet seats and that sort of thing, but there was a lot of scaremongering going on.

That was 1985. By late 1986/early 1987, everything had changed: it seemed as if everyone was talking about HIV and AIDS.  There was the big government campaign, with the pictures of tombstones.  It was horrible, but it did frighten people into being more careful and that will have saved a lot of lives.  “Hands, face, space,” sounds like something you chant during a nursery school game.  “AIDS: don’t die of ignorance” scares the hell out of you.

And the famous pictures of the Princess of Wales opening an AIDS hospice, and hugging and shaking hands with patients without wearing gloves, did a lot to dispel fears that you could catch it just from casual contact.  But there were still people who thought you could.  The Mark Fowler storyline in EastEnders, in 1990, probably did more to educate people in the UK than anything else did, because it went into so much detail.  Like a lot of people who were teenagers at the time, I certainly learnt more about HIV and AIDS from Mark Fowler than I did from any other source.

EastEnders were, as well as educating people about HIV and AIDS, making the point that anyone could catch it.  The character of Mark wasn’t in any of the high risk groups.  It was difficult: if they’d done the storyline with a gay character, people would have said that they were going along with the idea that it only affected gay men, and they were trying to avoid that … but it’s odd that, even now, none of the British soaps have “done” a storyline in which a gay male character’s been diagnosed with HIV.

Tony Warren, the late creator of Coronation Street, did address the AIDS pandemic in his novel The Lights of Manchester, though.  I read that in 1992.  A gay man moves from Manchester to San Francisco, and is gloriously happy there because he feels a sense of belonging in a city with such a big gay community. Some years later, he comes home for a visit and tells his best friend that his address book’s now full of crossings out, that there are hardly any names left on some pages, and that it’s pure good luck that he hasn’t contracted HIV himself: he hadn’t been careful because, at the time, he hadn’t known that he needed to be.  It’s a shame that that never made it on to TV: it was a very powerful conversation.

Then, in 1993, Tom Hanks won the Best Actor award for Philadelphia; and that was how far things had come.  Going back to 1986, we’d had James Anderton, the infamous “God’s Cop” Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, saying some really horrendous things about people who had AIDS.  Graham Stringer, who’s now an MP but was then the leader of Manchester City Council, had a right go at him.  By 1993, I don’t think a public figure would have said what Anderton did … but even then, when Arthur Ashe died, having contracted HIV from a blood transfusion, remarks were made about how he was a victim, in a way that someone who’d contracted it from sexual contract or shared drugs needles wasn’t.  Did Philadelphia, in which we saw characters expressing those attitudes even as they saw the Tom Hanks character suffering, help to change opinions?

The power of books, films and TV.  And music.  I was supposed to be seeing the Pet Shop Boys at the Manchester Arena last May.  The concert was rescheduled for this May, which, at the time, seemed like light years away: the pandemic was going to be over and done with by Christmas.  Yeah, right.  I don’t think It’s A Sin was ever meant as a campaigning song, but Red Letter Day must have been.  And Jimmy Somerville’s Read My Lips (Enough is Enough) actually demanded more help for HIV/AIDS patients.  The first episode ended with Smalltown Boy.  Do people who weren’t ancient enough to have been around in the ’80s and ’90s know these songs?   And was that Juliet Bravo that they were watching on TV in one episode?

Yes.  The power of TV.  I hope that this series achieves what Russell T Davies wants.  It’s been 40 years since the first death from AIDS in the UK, and a series like this is long overdue.

The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

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  I normally steer clear of the vast numbers of books “inspired by” Pride and Prejudice which have appeared over the past 25 years.  The quantity of them out there is truly astounding: there must be thousands!  However,  I decided to try this one because I felt that Mary Bennet deserved a break.

Much as I love Jane Austen’s books, it has to be said that some of her characters are more pantomimish than nuanced, and also that some of her characters seem to deserve a lot more sympathy than she gives them.  Mrs Bennet is mercilessly mocked, even though she’s the only one who seems to appreciate the precarious position that her daughters are in.  And Mary never does anyone any harm – she’s hardly Caroline Bingley or Isabella Thorpe – but neither the author nor any of the other characters have a kind word to say to her or about her.  She’s the only plain one in a family of five girls, the odd one out in between two pairs of sisters who are also close friends, and, sadly but not unrealistically (in her time and maybe even in ours), no-one puts much value on her intelligence – good looks, charm and money are what matter.  Poor Mary.

In this book, Mary blossoms, due largely to the support of her Uncle and Aunt Gardiner.  It’s lovely to see the Gardiners – and remember that the last two sentences of Pride and Prejudice are actually about them –  given a prominent role.  And she finds herself being pursued round the Lake District by two handsome men!   Furthermore, I’m convinced that the unnamed inn in Grasmere where they’re all staying is the place where I stay when I go to the Lakes, and, being very Lake-sick at the moment, I’m inordinately jealous of them.  Yes, I do know that that’s beside the point.  But I am.

Some parts of this don’t ring particularly true, and none of the Jane Austen fanfic novels are ever going to live up to the original books, but this isn’t bad.

How do you judge books like this?  On their own merits, or by comparison with the originals.  Well, if you’re going to use someone else’s characters and someone else’s world, then you have to expect to be judged on whether or not you show the characters behaving in a way which fits in with how they do in the “canon” book(s).  For the most part, in this book, they do here.  The only one who doesn’t is Charlotte, who’s become rather unkind.  That’s explained, not unrealistically, as the result of being married to someone she neither likes nor respects; but it’s a shame, because she’s such a lovely character.  She’s desperate for Elizabeth to find happiness, and she’s not the slightest bit jealous when Elizabeth bags Mr Darcy.  I wish Janice Hadlow hadn’t chosen to change her so much.  But everyone else is much as they were.

As for the general atmosphere of the book … most of it’s OK, but Jane Austen would never have shown Elizabeth thinking about how much she’d like to hold Mr Darcy’s hand or stroke his hair, and certainly not about “what they would be to each other” once they were married.  OK, I’m sure she did, but we don’t see it.  And things go rather bonkers towards the end, when one of Mary’s suitors proposes that they forget about the ties of polite society and go off and live in unmarried bliss in a villa in Italy!   All right, the Georgians weren’t the Victorians, and some quite scandalous stuff goes on in Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice, but that was a bit much.

So what actually happens?  Well, the first part of the book is about the events of Pride and Prejudice.  Some passages are copied out word for word.  Rather strangely, one of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s speeches is copied out word for word in a later part of the book, set two years after Lady Catherine actually said it.  There’s a nice friendship between Mary and Mrs Hill, and seeing things from Mary’s viewpoint is interesting.  Imagine her humiliation at the Netherfield ball, when Mr Bennet tells her to stop singing and give someone else a go.  And there are strong hints that she thought she and Mr Collins might be a good match – only for Charlotte Lucas to get in there first.  We hear a lot more about that here.

Then the author kills Mr Bennet off – which is rather sad, but necessary for the rest of the plot.  The Collinses move into Longbourn, and Mrs Bennet and Mary are out on their ear.  However, Mary is not Miss Bates: she’s never going to end up “sinking lower” and struggling for money, because Jane and Elizabeth are both now married to wealthy men and will never see her stuck.  Incidentally, Kitty is, in accordance with Jane Austen’s own letters, now married to a clergyman near Pemberley, but she doesn’t appear in this book, and nor do the Wickhams.

Mrs Bennet and Mary move in with the Bingleys, but Caroline Bingley’s also there, and makes Mary’s life a misery.  So Mary goes to stay with the Darcys, but feels distinctly surplus to requirements there.  She then, being fond of Charlotte and missing Longbourn, asks if she can stay with the Collinses.  And here we see Mr Collins being treated more sympathetically – he thought Charlotte really liked him, and has now had to accept that it was a marriage of convenience for her.  He and Mary, both being keen on reading and studying, become quite close … and Charlotte gets jealous and tries to get rid of her by hinting that Lady Catherine find her a job as a governess.  The portrayal of Charlotte really didn’t work for me, I have to say, but I liked the portrayal of Mr Collins.  He seems a lot more real and a lot less caricatured here.

So Mary then goes off to visit the Gardiners, and this works out brilliantly.  She likes living in London, and grows in self-confidence in a happy home.  She’s also persuaded by Mrs Gardiner that she deserves some nice clothes, which suit her better.  We learn that she never used to bother much about her clothes, because she thought she didn’t deserve nice clothes.  That used to be me in the late 1980s!  I used to insist that I didn’t “like” trendy clothes, but the truth was that I thought a fat girl didn’t deserve to have anything nice to wear, and that people’d just laugh at me if I looked like I was trying to make an effort.  So I did find it very touching and realistic that we were told Mary never made much effort with her appearance because she felt that, as a plain girl, it wasn’t appropriate.

Along comes an attractive, personable and eligible relative of Mrs Gardiner’s, a young lawyer, Tom Hayward.  Jane Austen said that Mary married one of Mr Phillips’s clerks, so maybe that was where the idea of the lawyer came from?   But, in keeping with Austen-esque tradition, the course of true love doesn’t runs smooth.  Along next comes his friend, Mr Ryder – who turns out to be a connection of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s, living on an allowance provided by her.  It seems rather unlikely that Mr Darcy has never mentioned this man.  And, if Lady Catherine is supporting her young male relatives, what about Colonel Fitzwilliam, who’s never mentioned?   It’s also a rather unlikely coincidence.  But then Jane Austen’s books are full of unlikely coincidences.  Any of her heroines can usually guarantee that any new person they meet will have a complicated history with someone they already know!

Mr Ryder is being pursued by Caroline Bingley, but takes a shine to Mary.  The Gardiners then decide to take the trip to the Lake District which had to be postponed in Pride and Prejudice, and ask Tom to go with them.  This seems a bit implausible, and indeed improper, as does the amount of time which Mary spends alone both with Tom and with Mr Ryder.  However, off they go.  They duly arrive, via Windermere, in Grasmere … only for Mr Ryder, Caroline Bingley, and Mr and Mrs Hurst all to turn up at the same hotel.  There’s an outing which ends in drama, and a misunderstanding which results in Tom Hayward making his excuses and going home.

Once everyone’s back in London, some interesting points are made about how Mary, as a woman, is unable to contact Tom to try to clear things up between them.  And, if Mr Ryder proposes, should she accept him, on the grounds that a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush, rather than turn him down in the hope that Tom will come back to her?  Of course, everything turns out OK in the end, and Mary and Tom get married and live happily every after, but her dilemma’s certainly interesting.  Elizabeth didn’t like Mr Collins, Catherine Morland didn’t like John Thorpe and Fanny Price didn’t like Henry Crawford, but what if their unwanted suitors had been all right, and possibly worth settling for?   It gets stupid when what Mr Ryder offers isn’t marriage, but, until then, Mary faced a thought-provoking choice.  We get the feeling that she’d say no anyway, because she really loves Tom, but she only really has that choice because she’s got the options of a home with the Gardiners, the Bingleys or the Darcys.  So there’s quite a bit to think about there.

And, hooray, we see Mary getting the better of Caroline Bingley!   How many of us have longed to stand up to a bitchy bully, but not had the confidence to do so?   Very satisfying.

I don’t know that the book was entirely satisfying, but I certainly never got upset and frustrated, as I’ve sometimes done before with reading fanfic/spin-off/rip-off novels.  Don’t get me started on the dreadful Scarlett, the so-called sequel to Gone With The Wind.  In fact, as I got towards the end, I couldn’t put it down until Tom came back.  I won’t be reading any more of the Jane Austen fanfic novels, because I’m not really that keen on the idea of them, but I’m not sorry that I read this.  Mary deserved a break!

 

 

The Stars of Heaven by Jessica Dall

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How wonderful to find a new English language novel set in Portugal.  There are annoyingly few of them.  There really ought to be more.  The Portuguese are our oldest allies. It’s actually the oldest known extant alliance in the world.  They’ve got red postboxes like we have.  They gave us Cristiano Ronaldo.  They gave us pasteis de nata.  They *definitely* deserve more recognition in English historical fiction 🙂 .  The author of this is actually American, but one of the main characters, is, of course, a British wine trader.  And it’s set during a fascinating period of Portuguese history – the 1755 earthquake, which devastated the lovely city of Lisbon, the rebuilding, and the Pombaline reforms which broke the power of the old aristocracy, the Jesuits and the Inquisition, as tradition and the Enlightenment clashed.

The author’s American, as I said, and the language is very American – which is obviously fair enough, but all the “gottens” etc may sound a bit odd to British readers.  And our wine trader from the south coast sometimes sounds very Northern, and the use of first names in the very formal Portuguese court is annoying.  And the ending is a bit bonkers.  OK, moans over!   For the most part, I really enjoyed it.

Our main character is Cecilia, daughter of a gentry (as opposed to aristocracy) family, who’s taken in by her uncle after her widowed mother is killed in the Lisbon earthquake.  Cecilia is rescued by her uncle’s business associate, British wine trader John Bates (named after the character in Downton Abbey, perhaps?!), and there’s, inevitably, an on-off romance.  The uncle is close ally of Pombal … who, as he wasn’t the Marquess of Pombal at that point, but plain old Senhor Carvalho de Melo, is referred to here as Senhor Carvalho.  Quite correct, but it did throw me for a bit, because I think of him as Pombal.   Like when you read a book set during the early period of the Napoleonic Wars and it refers to “Arthur Wellesley”: it just takes you a minute!

Cecilia’s younger sister also survives, but her mental health is affected and she just keeps praying, leading people to say that she’s a miracle child.  That’s all a bit odd, especially as the sister then goes into a convent and plays no further part in the story, but presumably it’s to show the contrast between the “estrangeirados”, the pro-scientific/Enlightment faction led by Carvalho, and the faction of the Jesuit Malagrida, who said that the earthquake was a punishment for people’s sins.  A brother, who’s a priest, also survives, and is in the Malagrida camp.

Pombal, as he became, did a vast amount of good culturally and economically.  His reforms to the wine trade weren’t that great from a British viewpoint, but, OK, they were from a Portuguese viewpoint.  That isn’t mentioned, curiously, and nor is the Seven Years’ War: the focus is all on the factions at court.

But he was ruthless, and we see that here – one of Cecilia’s suitors is an innocent victim of the Tavora affair, which saw a large number of powerful aristocrats executed rather than only the small number of people linked to an attack on the king, and Cecilia herself, now living at court, is drawn into his network of spies.

There’s a rather bizarre ending in which the brother is broken out of jail by Cecilia and the wine trader, and everyone escapes to France: it’s not the best of endings to an interesting book, but I suppose it was the only way to get Cecilia out of the spy network.  Daft ending and a few other moans besides, it really is a very interesting book.  As I said, Portuguese history deserves a lot more attention in English language fiction than it gets.

Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman

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  Full title “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots”.  This is the memoir on which the much-discussed Netflix series is based.  I haven’t got Netflix, so I haven’t seen it, but the book was available as a 99p Kindle download, so I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about.

I can’t honestly see quite what all the fuss is about – although the TV series may well be much better.  The book’s interesting; but it’s written in rather a rambling way, and there’s way too much detail about things which really aren’t that interesting, like what they had for their tea, and how people were pushing and shoving to get to the front to see people dancing at a religious festival.  Some of the small details really are interesting, though, like just how much the furry hats cost, and how girls are supposed to wear particular types of tights/stockings.  I also liked the fact that the author said she’d been inspired by the fictional heroines of books she’d managed to obtain secretly.  Elizabeth Bennet.  Jo March.  Anne Shirley.  People often talk about how these fictional heroines can form a bond between women, or at least Anglophone women, from completely different backgrounds.  How very true that’s shown to be here.

Having said all that, it does raise some important issues about the lack of choices for people raised in closed religious communities.  It’s not even just closed religious communities: there’s a growing movement, in the US if not so much elsewhere, for religious parents, especially those from evangelical churches, to home school their children, which means that the children only learn what the parents want them to learn, rather than the mainstream curriculum.  The lifestyle of strict religious communities does work for many people, and obviously that’s great for them, but it’s very difficult for those who are brought up in those communities but want something different from life.

What I’d like to have heard more about – in addition than the story of the author’s mother, who was born in Manchester, and left the New York Hasidic community she married into because she was gay – was the history of it all.  I’ve spent quite a while reading up on this, since reading the book.  I – spot the Eastern European history specialist 🙂 – knew the basics, about the Khmelnytsky Massacres, and Sabbatai Zvi, and the Haskalah, and the split between the Hasidim and the “Lithuanians” – but I didn’t really understand that they were so many different groups, and that they all centred on individual dynasties.  It’s more interesting that what people had for their tea. OK, it is to me, anyway!

Honestly, it is fascinating.   Most of the groups originated in South Central/Eastern Europe, where the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire (as it became), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Ottoman Empire and the Danubian Principalities met and collided and took and swapped territory.  The Satmar group, the one which this book is about, originated in Transylvania, in a city called Satmar in Yiddish, Satu Mare in Romania and Szatmarnemeti in Hungarian.  Without going into the rights and wrongs of the Treaty of Trianon, it’s now part of Romania, but was under Hungarian administration during the war.  A lot of Hungarian Jews were deported to a ghetto there, and many of those who survived the Holocaust later moved to Williamsburg, New York, where the leader of the Satmar dynasty had established a new community.  The book doesn’t go into this in much detail.  It’s a shame.  As I’ve said, it’s a lot more interesting that what people had for their tea.

And these communities are closed.   A lot of people in Manchester will be familiar with the name “Chabad-Lubavitch”: that’s the more open Hasidic group, and they do engage with the wider community, with things like putting menorahs up in different parts of town during Chanukah.  They’re mentioned in passing here, as living in the Crown Heights area of New York, and having little to do with the Satmars, who live in the Williamsburg area.  But, until I looked on Google, I didn’t even know that there was a big Satmar synagogue in Salford.  I know the street it’s on, and I know that there’s a big synagogue there, and I see men wearing furry hats when I drive through that area, but I’d never heard the word “Satmar” mentioned in connection with it before.  This is not in New York.  This is a few miles down the road.

And there are loads and loads of other groups, as well as the Satmars and the Chabad-Lubavitch, especially in New York.  There are even splits within the Satmar group: Deborah is shocked when she thinks that her husband-to-be is a member of one faction, when her family are members of another. I honestly didn’t realise it was all such a complex situation.

The book does explain briefly that children are taught that the Holocaust was a punishment for assimilation.  This does partially explain why the community shuts itself off.  I don’t know how much that’s specific to the Satmars, because of the particular history of Hungarian Jews.  There’s not much historical background, though.  To be fair, it’s not intended as a textbook.  It’s the story of one woman’s experiences.

I wasn’t very comfortable with the fact that she included so much personal, very intimate detail about her marriage.  Her ex-husband doesn’t sound like the world’s greatest guy, but he wasn’t personally to blame for the ways of their community, and it must have been very embarrassing for him to have had all this private stuff made so public.  I also wondered what her son, who must now be a teenager, thinks about it.  Having said which, I gather that the ex-husband has now also left the community, and is happily remarried and leading a secular lifestyle which suits him much better, so hopefully things have worked out for him too.

This book is now eight years old and, since it was written, it’s become a little more common for people to move away from closed religious communities.  Obviously, those lifestyles do work for some people, as I’ve said, but it’s clearly extremely hard for those who do want to get away, especially women who are usually married off in their teens, expected to start having children immediately, and are then in a position where it’s even harder to leave.  Having said which, there was a lot of talk in the UK a few years ago about non-registered schools, and several points were made about how difficult it is for boys who’ve attended Hasidic schools, because they’ve been taught little other than religious studies.

The theme of the book is the author’s own struggles with the restrictions of the closed community in which she’s been brought up.  Her own position’s unusual, the child of a mother who left the community and a father who seems to’ve had severe learning disabilities.  She’s brought up by her grandparents. We hear about her school, and all the emphasis that’s put on “modesty” in dress and behaviour, and then about her arranged marriage at the age of 17.

They have a lot of problems in the bedroom, and there’s really way too much detail about that, but they do eventually have a child.  She’s always been a bit of a rebel, but, after her son is born, she rebels much more, enrols on a college course, starts dressing differently, not wearing a wig, eating out at non-kosher restaurants with her new friends … and, eventually, she takes her son and leaves.

Perhaps inevitably, the book is very critical of the community, even of some her own relatives.  It also goes into detail about the customs of this community which keeps itself to itself – it’s as much an expose as a memoir.  Some of that’s fairly uncontroversial, such as how rabbis are seen as celebs to the extent that children have “rabbi cards” in the way that other children have football cards, and details about keeping a kosher kitchen.  A lot of it will be interesting to people who are not familiar with Hasidic Judaism, such as married women not being allowed to show their own hair, and how marriages are arranged.

Some of it is much more controversial.  I think everyone’s aware that cases of child abuse within a lot of religious communities have been covered up, and that’s something that’s mentioned here.  The book also alleges that a father murdered his own child when he caught him masturbating, and that the community covered it up.  The author’s said that she would not have made something like that up.

It ends with her leaving the community, and we get the impression, although it’s not made clear, that she’s now cut off from it completely.  It’s all shown very positively.  If she feels any regrets about being cut off from her grandparents, her father, her aunts, uncles, cousins and old friends, and about cutting her son off from them too, she doesn’t express them.  Having said which, she had nothing positive to say about any of them, other than her grandparents.  If she’s got no regrets, that’s great for her.  It’s probably a lot more difficult for most people to make that break.

She also had friends from college who were able to help her, notably by introducing her to publishing contacts so that she was able to get a contract to publish her book and make some money.  A lot of people, especially women, in her position, wouldn’t have had that help.  It is very, very difficult for people to escape that lifestyle, if they want to.  And I suppose the reason for the popularity of the book is that people admire someone who was able to do that.

This isn’t a literary masterpiece.  It rambles.  People who are unfamiliar with Judaism and with Yiddish words will probably find some of it hard to follow.  Two different forms of transliteration from Hebrew are used, rather randomly.  It’s also all me-me-me -OK, it’s the author’s memoir, but she never seems to stop to consider how her husband might feel about things, or how her grandparents might feel about things, or how anyone else at all might feel about things.  But there’s clearly something about it, because the book was a best seller, and the TV series was a big ratings winner.  I think the 99p Kindle offer’s finished now, but, if it comes up again, this is worth a go.

Golden Poppies by Laila Ibrahim

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.  This is the sequel to Yellow Crocus and Mustard Seed, the story of the intertwined lives of the family of a former slave and the family of her former owner’s daughter.  The author’s style of writing and general use of English are far better in this book that in those, but the Gilded Age just isn’t as interesting (to me) as the immediate antebellum period, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and I could also have done without the very long descriptions of railway carriages and characters’ new bathrooms.

Having said which, this third book, set partly in California and partly in Illinois, does cover some important subjects, notably the Pullman workers’ strike of 1894, the campaign for women’s suffrage in the US and Susan B Anthony’s decision to sideline African-American women, the issue of light-skinned mixed race men “passing” as white – quite understandably so, as it enabled them to earn far higher wages for far shorter hours – and the campaign for the abolition of the miscegenation laws.

Quite a lot of it centres on Unitarian churches.  I’m not sure how many Greek-American women would have attended Unitarian churches, as happens here, but I suppose some may have done.  The general theme is that California is thought to be more liberal in terms of equal rights for black and white people, and to some extent for women and men, but that, in fact, that isn’t always the case.  There’s also a detailed sub-plot involving Lisbeth (the daughter of the former slaveowner)’s daughter and her abusive husband.

It’s not the greatest book ever written, but it does cover some interesting subjects – civil rights for African Americans, rights for women, rights for workers in general –  and, as it’s available quite cheaply for Kindle readers, is worth a read.

Covid Christmas Parade by Milan Kumar

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  This is lovely: it’s a picture book which was written and self-published by 8-year-old Milan Kumar from Bolton, with proceeds going to the National Literacy Trust.  Milan wrote it after completing a reading challenge, which was to read 50 books during the first lockdown, and being praised by the Duchess of Cornwall.  At a time when many adults seem more interested in sniping and points-scoring than in standing together and supporting others, it’s wonderful that a young lad’s done something like this.

I bought it as a way of making a donation to a good cause, and also recognising the efforts of a local boy, but I did really enjoy reading it.  It’s a short picture book aimed at young kids, which isn’t the sort of thing I usually read these days 🙂 , but it’s very sweet.  It’s a story about a little boy who’s sad that Christmas seems to have been cancelled by the virus and the necessary restrictions, but realises that, yes, it’s possible for one ordinary person to do something to bring about good in their community, and organises a drive-through (yes, hooray, spelt “drive-through” rather than “drive-thru”!) parade.  Everyone who takes part drives through the town, and leaves presents outside other people’s homes, and there are lots of big smiles and everyone’s happy 🙂 .

This is a horrible time, but there are heartwarming stories out there, and both the story in the book and the story of the book are amongst them.  On a difficult day, after seeing the very distressing pictures of the damage done to the US Capitol building, this made me smile.

 

Fire Queen by Joanna Courtney

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This is the second in Joanna Courtney’s series “reclaiming” Shakespearean heroines.  However, whilst Lady Macbeth was a real historical figure, Ophelia, the main character in this book, wasn’t.  The story told here is based partly on the 13th century “Saxo Grammaticus”, an Icelandic telling of the story of the Danish prince “Amleth”, on which Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is *very* loosely based, but there’s no Ophelia in that, only a “temptress” who’s nothing like the rather pathetic Ophelia created by Shakespeare.  So Joanna Courtney’s made her up, as a warrior who fights alongside the men, is Hamlet’s constable, is made a prince by him, and carries on with him and a lot of other men but refuses to marry.

It’s a bit like rewriting “Rebecca” with the second Mrs de Winter giving Mrs Danvers her marching orders.  Or rewriting “Wuthering Heights” with Isabella Linton telling Heathcliff that she wouldn’t look twice at him if he were the last man on earth.  Only even more extreme.  Totally bonkers, but it’s actually very entertaining.  She’s intertwined the story with the real life events of the early 7th century clashes between the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia and the Celtic kingdom of Dalriada/Dal Riata (Hamlet and Ophelia both end up in Britain for part of the book), a part of history which rarely features in novels.  And there are some wonderful depictions of Norse religious ceremonies  … although they all seem to finish early when everyone pairs up with some random partner and heads off into the bushes, someone decides to murder someone else, or, usually, both.

If you’re a big fan of Shakespeare, which I’m not, this book will have you reaching for either a bottle of vodka or a vial of smelling salts.  Otherwise, you will probably find it rather good fun, and quite informative as well.

In the Shakespeare play, Hamlet’s uncle murders his dad and marries his mum.  That’s Hamlet’s mum, not his own mum.  Hamlet and Ophelia may or may not be heading for marriage.  Hamlet accidentally murders Ophelia’s dad.  Ophelia goes mad and dies, possibly accidentally, possibly by suicide.  Ophelia’s brother and Hamlet’s uncle kill Hamlet, but Hamlet manages to kill the uncle at the same time.  Pretty much everyone ends up dead.   And there are a lot of ghosts.  And a skull.

In the “Saxo Grammaticus”, Amleth’s uncle murders his dad and marries his mum.  Amleth pretends to go mad. And resists a temptress.  Then he marries an Anglian princess and a Scottish queen.  That’s two different people, not one person.  And kills his uncle.  But then another relative, who’s ganged up with the Scottish queen, kills Amleth.  Then marries the Scottish queen.  Do keep up.

This version uses a lot of the names from the Amleth legend, although it uses the more familiar “Hamlet” rather than “Amleth”.  The uncle still murders the dad, but no-one pretends to go mad.  And Hamlet has an Anglian wife and a Celtic wife, although, in this version of events, the Celtic wife is a devout Christian who really wanted to be a nun, and only gangs up with the wicked uncle because she genuinely believes that he’ll convert Denmark to Christianity.  Hamlet still meets a sticky end, but, in this version, it’s when he’s cheating on both his wives with Ophelia, and another of Ophelia’s gentlemen friends catches them at it.  In a tomb.  And kills him out of jealousy. The Celtic wife who wanted to be a nun is also there, and comes over even more religious than usual when she sees that a rock’s been rolled away from the entrance to a tomb.

OK, it’s all a bit bonkers, but it’s generally well-written, apart from some annoying slang which just doesn’t work very well in the characters’ mouths; and Ophelia (whose name is spelt here as Ofelia) is very well-depicted.  There’s a whole background story about how she was mentally scarred by her mother’s decision to throw herself on her funeral ship, which comes across well, and there certainly were female warriors – Lagertha in “Vikings”, anyone? – , although the idea of Ophelia as Hamlet’s constable is pushing it.  And the women do all get to be happy in the end – both of Hamlet’s wives remarry, more successfully, and Ophelia gets a happy ending of sorts, too.

I did actually really enjoy this.  Bonkers or no!

The Empress by Laura Martinez-Belli

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I really enjoyed this.  I’m only used to reading about the French intervention in Mexico as an aside in books about the American Civil War, but, after recently reading a book about the history of the Belgian royal family, I came across this novel about the Empress Carlota and decided to give it a go.  Much of it’s based on reports/legends rather than known facts, and some of it’s purely fictional and more than a little far-fetched, but the author does make that clear in the afterword, so that’s fair enough.

In late 1861, after Mexico had defaulted on debts it owed to Britain, France and Spain, Napoleon III (Britain and Spain sensibly negotiated agreements with the Mexican authorities) decided to try to prove what a big shot he was by sending French troops to invade Mexico.  Aristocratic conservative forces there had already mooted the idea of inviting a big name European prince to become Mexican emperor, and the new pro-French government invited the Archduke Maximilian, brother of the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, and his wife, Charlotte of Belgium (Queen Victoria’s first cousin), who became known as the Empress Carlota, to establish a new Mexican Empire.

It didn’t end well. The marriage was a disaster.  A lot of Mexicans were narky.  The United States was narky.  The French pulled out.  Maximilian was executed.  Carlota suffered some sort of breakdown and had severe mental health problems for the rest of her long life.  There are rumours that she had a relationship with Colonel Alfred van der Smissen, one of the Belgian officers in Mexico, and that she gave birth to their son soon after returning to Europe: there was a man who was supposed to be that son, but even he doesn’t seem to have been sure whether he was or not.  This book revolves around that rumour, which is well-established, and also an idea that Carlota’s “madness” was due to mind-bending herbs given to her by a Mexican lady-in-waiting who was working for the republicans … not very likely, but it’s written rather convincingly!

The lady-in-waiting, Constanza, and her family – her mother and one brother on the liberal/republican side, her father and another brother on the conservative/monarchist side – are important characters on the book, enabling us to see the situation from the viewpoint of different well-to-do Mexicans.  Another character is a young indigenous woman who becomes Maximilian’s mistress and has his child – another established rumour, although nothing like as well-known as the one about Carlota’s child. Through her eyes, we also see the situation through the eyes of the often poorly-treated indigenous Mexicans.  Constanza becomes involved with a young soldier, and, through his eyes, we see how “the Mexican adventure” seemed to offer opportunities for young French and Belgian men.  So we do get a lot of viewpoints.

In many ways, Maximilian and Carlota actually did rather a good job, in terms of supporting religious freedom and trying to improve the lot of the indigenous peoples.  Maybe that doomed them – that alienated the conservatives, and the liberals wanted a republic, so that left them with little support.  Carlota pleaded for help from France, Austria and the Vatican, but they got none.

The book’s a bit confusing in that it starts with Carlota back in Europe, seeking help after the French pulled out, and then jumps backwards and forwards between what was happening then and what had happened earlier.  Then it ends with a few chapters about the sad remainder of Carlota’s life – she was only in her mid-20s when she first suffered a breakdown, and lived to be 86, spending nearly 60 years under medical observation, most of them back in Belgium.

The book shows her brother, the infamous Leopold II, of Congo infamy, only being interested in getting control of her money, whilst his wife Marie Henriette was the only one who cared for her, but it’s said elsewhere that Leopold treated her well.  Either way, the story of the “mad empress” who spent 60 years in castles which were effectively psychiatric hospitals is very sad.  It also suggests that her child was stolen from her and that all those who’d attended the birth and or knew of her pregnancy were murdered, which seems even more far-fetched than the idea that her mental health issues were due to mind-bending herbs – I can’t imagine that there are any herbs with mind-bending effects so strong that they linger 60 years after it was last taken, and the murders seem a bit medieval!

As for the marriage, no-one really knows what went on between Carlota and Maximilian.  It’s widely believed that their marriage was never consummated.  The book suggests that Maximilian was gay, another widely-established rumour – although plenty of gay kings and princes have fathered children.

Whatever the truth of it all – and a lot of what’s in this book definitely isn’t the truth of it, although it’s an entertaining read, and very informative about a little-discussed period in history – the story of the lively young princess who married a handsome Habsburg, only for her marriage to turn out to be a disaster, sailed off to an exciting new life as Empress of Mexico and tried to do her best for the people there, only for that to turn into a disaster too, may or may not have had a child whom she was unable to bring up, and then spent nearly 60 years as a psychiatric patient is very poignant.