27

The Most Difficult Book I’ve Ever Read

So far this year, I’ve been drawn to more serious subject matter. I’ve written about it here and here and here.

Today’s another one. The difference this time is that the book in question, One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, shredded me. I don’t just mean that this book made me sad.

This book broke me.

I had to take breaks from this book. I was in tears, I was sobbing reading this book.

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This book, by Åsne Seierstad, started when the author was asked to write a piece about the massacre for Newsweek. Seierstad was used to writing about conflict in the Middle East, about war happening in far away places, but her home in Norway was always a peaceful refuge from her work. Now the conflict had bled into her home.

The result is a stunning portrait of what happened: in Anders Breivik’s life, in Norway over the past 40 years, in Oslo and on the island of Utoya on that summer day in 2011.

Seierstad doesn’t just look at the radicalization of Breivik – his wreck of a home life, days as a tagger in the city, and the eventual descent into hatred and delusion that saw him plant a bomb in the centre of Oslo before shooting a bunch of unarmed teenagers on a secluded island.

She also looks at the lives of those lost: Simon Saebo, a teenager from the north of Norway who had  a summer job at the cemetery and started a local youth branch of the Labour Party; Bano Rashid, whose family fled the war in Iraq, who was so intent on becoming a “proper” Norwegian and loved the traditions of her adopted country, and hoped to become a minister one day; Anders Kristiansen, another young man who thought one day he could be Prime Minister, who had asked his mom to weave him a blanket the colour of the summer sky. By the time the book gets to that day in July, you know these kids, their families, their hopes and dreams.

And this is why this book was so difficult to read – possibly the most difficult book I’ve ever read – these children had their whole lives ahead of them. Each of them was hard-working, clever, decent and they all had plans for working towards a better Norway, a better world. And some asshole, blinded by hatred, fueled by delusions of grandeur, took it upon himself to end their promising young lives.

Seierstad tells a complete story. The before, the after, the trial, how the families are coping; but she also includes about 60 some odd pages of the actual shooting. I wasn’t prepared for that. She looks at the response of the Norwegian authorities, how things maybe didn’t go as well as they could have. She is critical but you get the sense that everyone in Norway was just flabbergasted that anything like this could happen there. Altogether, this adds up to one gut-punch of a book.

I’ve thought about those kids often in the days since I read it; about their parents and siblings having to navigate the rest of their lives without them. Seierstad got approval from all the families of those whose children’s last moments are covered in the book – their families don’t want them to be forgotten. Reading this book seems like a good start in honouring their memories.

11

Another Day in the Death of America

I’ve been working hard on making some of my reading more meaningful. On choosing books that make me feel like I’m educating myself in a way that is necessary right now. So that I can’t just be an ignorant privileged white woman.

Thankfully, there are so very many books that can help me on my way.

Today we’re going to talk about Gary Younge’s Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives.

america

Younge is a British journalist who found himself living in the United States after falling in love while working there short term. He stayed, got married, worked, and had two children in his time in America. Younge is a black man and the longer he stayed, especially once he had black children, the more he became worried about the gun violence in his adopted country. As he got to know more Americans, as he came to consider himself as less of an onlooker and more of a participant in every day American life, gun violence became more personal.

So, in an effort to show how personal the epidemic is, he picked a day, any day, and reported on all the stories of children shot to death on that day.On an average day, seven children will be shot. On the day Younge picked, November 23, 2013, ten children aged nine to nineteen were killed by guns. Younge spent eighteen months travelling around, talking to the people who loved them, those who were there, the mothers, fathers, friends, cousins left shattered in the wake of such unnecessary loss.

The children he profiles were black, white, hispanic. They were students, athletes, little kids who played in the streets until the lights came on. They fell in doorways, at sleepovers, in their own homes, on street corners. Their lives ended in California, Indiana, Illinois, New Jersey and Texas. They all left behind completely devastated families.

Gary Younge profiles these short lives with empathy and compassion. He speaks freely about how occasionally he messed up and didn’t approach grieving relatives with the space they needed to feel comfortable speaking with them. Over the course of the book, you can see Younge getting more and more involved in his subject matter.

This is a book about what happens when you don’t have gun control. Americans are no more inherently violent than anybody else. What makes its society more deadly is the widespread availability of firearms. Every country has its problems, unique to its own history and culture. But in no other Western society would this book be possible.

Another Day in the Death of America is an incredibly researched portrait of an epidemic that does not discriminate against its victims. I read most of it with my mouth open, horrified with the ease with which these young lives were wiped out. And I’m not sure really where it left me. Gary Younge and his family have since moved back to the UK.

One final note: this book has been optioned as a movie with David Oyelowo to star as Gary Younge.

17

Shonda Rhimes the person

You know how sometimes, you hear about books and you don’t read them, don’t read them, don’t read them, keep hearing about them, don’t read them until finally you do and wonder what took you so long?

That’s what happened with Shonda Rhimes’ The Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person.

Shonda Rhimes needs no introduction. She is, of course, the genius woman we have to thank for Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Private Practice and How to Get Away With Murder. She is the powerhouse behind TGIT, an entire night of network television dedicated to her universe. Lainey Gossip and Duana Taha are big fans of hers and talk about her and The Year of Yes often on their podcast, Show Your Work.

(Have you listened? It’s dedicated to work within the celebrity ecosystem and is brilliant and endlessly fascinating)

I bought a copy of this book almost a year ago. I finally read it.

What took me so long??

year-of-yes

The Year of Yes is kind of like one of those “I did this thing for a year and this is what happened” books. Except it’s Shonda Rhimes and she simply started saying “yes” to things that she always said no to. Her sister mentioned, offhand one night, that Shonda never said yes to anything and it got her thinking and she decided that for a year, she would say yes: to speaking engagements, going on Kimmel, spending time with her kids, having difficult conversations, to compliments, to saying no.

A few things struck me about this lovely little memoir.

  1. Shonda’s writing style is so conversational. She pulls you in like you are having a conversation with her, like you are her friend and this is all casual over dinner or drinks. It’s an incredibly effective way of making you care about what she has to say right off the bat.
  2. It’s so honest. Shonda holds nothing back. She lets you in fully. The one time she keeps details somewhat private are when she is talking about someone she was in a relationship with, who she didn’t end up marrying. She deftly manages to convey her side of things without bring anyone else into it. She is honest about how much help she has at home, her struggles with her weight, her mental well-being in certain situations – she writes it all.
  3. Shonda Rhimes is responsible for so much of our cultural lexicon! Reading this book, it really struck me what a massive impact Shonda Rhimes has had on our cultural memories, the things we say and the television events we all remember.
  4. Her relationship with Cristina Yang is intense (in a good way). Shonda talks about how she’s extremely introverted and Cristina Yang was the vehicle she used to say a lot of the things she wanted to say before she was able to be the one actually saying them. It was really interesting to read about this relationship with a character she created and what it was like saying good bye when she left the show.
  5. That even though she is pretty well single-handedly responsible for diversifying TV, she hates the concept of diversity. She just doesn’t see what the big deal is about making her shows look like what the world actually looks like.

I’m so glad that I finally read this book. It was light, funny, and so enlightening. She talks so much about self care and what that looks like for her (something we all think about a little more these days) and I so appreciated getting to know Shonda Rhimes the person. I read this book in one sitting, I couldn’t stop. It’s rare to get to read a memoir that is so captivating and offers its reader so much at the same time.

It was a delight from start to finish.

7

Why I buy non-fiction

A couple of weeks ago, on a post about monthly library usage, Buried in Print left a comment about buying versus borrowing non-fiction that I’ve been pondering ever since.

The exchange ended with the question: Have you always bought more NF than fiction, or has it become a habit over time?

And I’ve been thinking about this ever since, about my relationship to non-fiction versus fiction, why I’m drawn to one over the other when I buy books, why it’s important to me to buy non-fiction but I almost never take it out from the library.

book-stack

A few times a year, I go through my collection and purge. Physical books obviously take up space and when you have as many as I do, it gets out of hand quickly. There are some books that I read that I just don’t love and I don’t mind giving them away to make space for some that I might fall for. And even though I donate books a couple of times a year, almost none of those books are ever non-fiction.

Still, I own a lot of books (I have forgone formal dining space in the apartment in favour of setting up a library). Once I started earning my own money, it became important to me to buy books. That has mostly remained true over time. I do go to the library fairly regularly, in an effort to keep the numbers of books I own down somewhat.

But given the choice to buy or borrow non-fiction? I will pretty well choose ‘buy’ every time. I impulsively buy non-fiction in a way that just doesn’t happen with fiction. Partly, this is because I have been haunted by non-fiction titles that I walked away from once only to spend months and years trying to find it again. So now? I just buy the book.

And partly, it’s because when I was a kid, I dreamed about one day having the kind of library that could be used as reference for school work. It seemed like an insane luxury not to have to troll the baby internet for knowledge, not have to physically go to the library. And that’s not to say that there were no books in my house – there were. Just not on the kinds of things I needed for my homework.

It’s important to me to buy non-fiction because I like being surrounded by history, politics, feminist voices, biographies and the kinds of books that are labelled as social science. I like being able to look something up when I want to, to look at pictures of things that happened a hundred years ago.

When I’ve not been able to afford to buy books, I’ve used the library a lot. And I always end up reading amazing non-fiction books that I then have to give back. And as is so often the case, those books haunt me as I realize that finding them to buy is no simple thing.

So buying non-fiction was a habit born of a childish desire to learn everything, to have that knowledge on hand when I needed it, for this introvert to be able to stay at home and have access to the information I need.

Of course, one could argue that the internet and smartphones have made this desire obsolete. But you all know that there is no way that I would ever trade my books for the internet.

Especially my non-fiction titles.

2

Portrait of a Husband

Back when I first read The Scent of Secrets, Jane Thynne’s series centred on a German movie star/spy, I expressed an interest in learning more about the Nazi wives.

Well, when I was at Powell’s last year, I found Magda Goebbels: The First Lady of the Third Reich by Hans-Otto Meissner. I didn’t even hesitate picking it up.

This book was published in German in 1978. Meissner begins the book by telling readers that although his own father, Dr. Otto Meissner was the head of the Reich Presidential Administration from 1919 until 1945, he and his father were both acquitted of wrongdoing during the de-Nazification tribunal in 1947.

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That’s part of what makes this book so compelling: the author knew his subject. They socialized together! Her friends felt comfortable telling him stories afterwards because they were all part of the same social circle.

This was always going to be an interesting book – Magda Goebbels was married to the man in charge of Nazi propaganda! She died with him at the very end, taking their six young children with them. The fact that the author knew Magda and her friends added something to this book that I wasn’t expecting.

However.

This also limited Meissner. I got the sense that parts of his portrait of Magda were softened, intending to make her more of a victim than a perpetrator. In speaking with some of her friends, he agreed to keep some names out of the book because they were still living and quite well known. In this way, Meissner reminds readers that he was on the inside, and we are not.

The biggest issue I had with this book though (and if you’ve kicked around here for a while, you won’t be surprised) was that for much of the book Meissner looks at Joseph Goebbels.

Look, obviously Joseph Goebbels was a big deal. But I didn’t pick up the book Magda Goebbels to read all about Joseph’s hopes, dreams and frustrations. Like, is it so impossible for those who write biographies about women to just write about the women? Yes, sometimes their husband’s work or personality has bearing on what happens (and that’s certainly true here) but the focus should still always be on the women. Whole chapters of this book were dedicated to Joseph Goebbels and his education and how he became a Nazi. Overall, I still don’t feel like I know anything more about Magda.

In the end, Meissner scored some points with me for ending his book thus:

If there is a hell and its ruler incarnate, Goebbels would presumably have been greeted warmly as a kinsman. A place at the devil’s table must long since have been kept for the monster who so richly deserved it, right next to the Prince of Darkness himself.

I mean, damn. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a biography where the biographer inserts himself so fully into the book. It was an interesting experience and no doubt I would have enjoyed it so much more had I actually come to understand Magda Goebbels herself at all.

I’m still on the lookout for more books about Magda and the other Nazi wives…

9

Review: Caught in the Revolution

Put your hand up if you love Russian history!

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Just me?

I will confess that most of my Russian history lessons have been confined to Tsars, their wives and children. I’ve been enamoured of the scandals, marriages, plots and descriptions of jewels for years.

But all of that leads, of course, to the Russian Revolution.

Helen Rappaport, author of the brilliant Romanov Sisters, has come to the same conclusion. Her new book, Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge, looks at what the Revolution meant for those expats living in Petrograd at the time.

In Caught in the Revolution, Rappaport relies on letters and diaries from eyewitnesses – those diplomats, journalists, nurses, engineers and workers who were there when all hell broke loose. In the Romanov Sisters, Rappaport managed to shed light on the sheltered lives of the grand duchesses who were mostly a mystery and she manages to illuminate the chaos of the Russian Revolution in the same way.

But this book is chaotic. This is the kind of dense non-fiction (a lot happens in a short amount of time) that will turn off all but the most dedicated readers. It is also kind of all over the place, owing in part to what was actually happening in Petrograd: bread lines turning into protests, the abdication of the Tsar, the provisional government taking over, riots in the streets, Bolsheviks fighting the ‘Whites’, blood running in the streets, journalists hiding out in hotel rooms for days without food, stranded by the violence outside.

But for all that, Rappaport still manages to dig out some gems including the observations of one Phil Jordan, an African American valet and chauffeur that accompanied the American ambassador. His letters, the only known published account of the revolution by an African American, provide readers with a sense of exactly what it was like to endure the Revolution.

Caught in the Revolution is not a book that I’d recommend across the board. It’s the kind of book that will appeal to a certain kind of reader. But if you’re interested in the time and are up for the challenge, I’d recommend this without hesitation.

6

Easy on the heart: The Marriage Bureau

Alright, today we’re moving away from the doom and gloom, the moaning and whining.

I still feel restless etc but I’m making the effort not to bring you all down (although, thanks to all of you who left comments on my last post letting me know I’m not the only one!).

Last year, I promised you a review of the book I’m talking about today.

marriage-burreauThat’s right, today I’m finally talking about The Marriage Bureau: True Stories of 1940s London Matchmakers!

(May be known as Marriages Are Made in Bond Street: True Stories from a 1940s Marriage Bureau in your market)

In the mid-1980s, author Penrose Halson took over a London marriage bureau that had been operating since 1939. It was started by friends Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver, single women who weren’t ready to get married themselves but knew a lot of people that could use their services as matchmakers. The idea came to Mary when she became aware of all the young, marriage minded males posted overseas who would come home for a few weeks to find a girl to marry. They didn’t have the connections to meet the right women and Mary did.

The Marriage Bureau follows these young women (in their mid-twenties when they started) as they worked to find office space, and set up their business at a time when women rarely worked outside of the home. It introduces readers to an incredible cast of characters: London spinsters, men who wanted to marry above their station, a widow three times over looking for a man without children who wouldn’t upset the balance of her life, the young sailor looking for love while on leave who hoped they would find someone that was just like his neighbour growing up, even a German spy.

marriage

I’ll admit that one of the things that drew me to this book was the fact that it’s in production by the folks that are responsible for Downton Abbey. I’m imagining a kind of Call the Midwife crossed with Downton or Upstairs Downstairs. I still get so excited thinking about the possibility!

This is a delightful, easy on the heart non-fiction read. Honestly, most of the time I forgot I was reading non-fiction. The chapters are set up in a way that you could dip in and out and you wouldn’t lose the ‘plot’. I have a friend who I regularly supply with books – she always tells me she doesn’t read non-fiction. I’m planning on loaning it to her, pretending that it’s fiction. Not sure she will notice the difference – that’s how readable it is.

I’ve been reading a lot of heavy, heart-rending non-fiction. The Marriage Bureau is that rare non-fiction read that is uplifting, riveting and will leave a smile on your face.

Look for it in spring.