Book Review: The Seven Deadly Sins

seven deadly sins

“humans cannot understand a full life without fun and pleasure; as such, we cannot possibly comprehend a truly human life without some aspect of lust, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Yet the sagest Christians demurred from going into details about what was attractive about the life to come: they weren’t sure. And humanists have done the same thing. When they tried to imagine a perfectly ordered human life it was far from appealing.”

The Seven Deadly Sins is a collection of essays written by seven Catalan authors who each explore the history and development of one of Christianity’s seven deadly sins. They discuss when the sin was selected and how it is defined. They ponder why a natural human emotion would be regarded as bad.

As these sins are a Christian concept, the tenets of that religion are focused on. There are also many reference to ancient beliefs and the more modern development of humanism. Key episodes in history are alluded to as markers in how what was considered sinful changed and developed. Philosophical thinking through the ages is analysed. A feature of the essays is the many digressions taken.

“nothing is excessive, disordered, or immoderate except in relation to a gradation that marks the point where excess begins.”

The first essay, by Oriol Qintana, covers sloth. It looks at changes to social and work culture in various societies and the pressure to perform productively and efficiently – to amass wealth for self or others. It is suggested that obligations are imposed to encourage aspiration for an idealised vision of ourselves.

“We don’t have the obligation to be the best people possible, but to be decent people, good enough people, each in our own way.

As in many of the essays, there are references to well known works of literature as the author introduces threads of personal opinion, each backed by argument but at times linking tenuously to the sin under discussion.

“We live among naysayers and enthusiasts, and the chaos is considerable. We certainly have a lot of opinions about good and evil.”

The second essay, by Adrià Pujol, looks at gluttony. The author suggests this is more of a man’s sin than a woman’s, a premise I disagreed with. He also offered gyms as an antidote – a way of offsetting overeating and its obvious manifestation, fat accrual – despite it now being known that, while exercise is vital for good health, weight loss still requires, first and foremost, a calorie deficit. Perhaps there is some cultural difference that made me struggle to engage with the arguments presented.

Lust is covered by Anna Punsoda. Once again I disagreed with the framework around which she built her reasoning. She seemed to be suggesting that all thought like her – I do not.

“It is not the most frowned-upon sin, because secretly we can all understand and forgive it.”

Desire may be a compulsion but the author appeared to devalue love, suggesting the value of maintaining monogamous relationships could not outweigh the pleasure to be found in moments of passion, paying little heed to the hurt and damage wrought when sexual excitement is valued over devotion.

“Their passion places them beyond good and evil and, more than loving each other, they love the very act of loving.”

Having struggled to engage once again, I was relieved to find more to consider in Raül Garrigasait’s thoughts on wrath. In this essay, the author expands on his thoughts with many references to the ancients – their wars and philosophy.

“Their ideal sage possessed an unflappable cold intelligence that never grew irritated, fell in love, or got depressed. They saw the passions as impurities that sullied the individual.”

As with other arguments propounded in the collection, there are suggestions that each sin may also offer positives. The key is to remain in control, to avoid excess. Being constantly angry can lead to embittered obstinacy, but wrath can also offer strength to say no to degrading commitments or evil collaborations.

Marina Porras writes of the sin of envy, pointing out it is harder to recognise as it comes from profound feelings difficult to articulate. Much of this essay references a work of literature I am not familiar with (A Broken Mirror by Mercè Rodoreda). While I could follow the opinions being shared I did not find them compelling.

Oriol Ponsatí-Murlà then looks at greed, referencing both modern and ancient texts to argue his case. He suggests that the concept of greed cannot be analysed objectively, that it and other sins are relative contextually.

“Raising awareness of our basic fallibility at comprehending our cultural past and present is absolutely indispensable so as to avoid making dogmatic fools of ourselves”

The author writes of a golden mean, one that can be a challenge to evaluate and determine.

The final essay, by Jordi Graupera, looks at pride. The golden mean is once again referenced along with texts that illustrate the basis of the author’s thinking. There are a smattering of personal anecdotes that added interest. I admit though, that by this stage in the book, my attention had waned.

The writing throughout verges on the academic in elucidation and clarification. There is much on the historical perspective along with the function of ethical thinking – sins as instruments of social control. The many digressions, although considered and explained, too often veered off topic. Essays are, of course, an author’s opinion. That I disagreed with many of these won’t have added to my enjoyment while reading.

How the seven deadly sins were selected was of interest. Although not new to me, the adaptation of ancient beliefs to make religious dogma more palatable was well expressed.

“The vast operation of translating – from Greek to Latin – and of conceptual transposing – adapting ancient philosophical notions to the Christian spiritual paradigm – that was entailed in moving Greek pagan wisdom to a religious imagery (along, largely, the footbridge of neo-Platonism) still constitutes one of the most monumental and successful intellectual efforts ever carried out in the Western World. Without it, it is impossible to understand the course of the last two millenia of our civilisation.”

I found aspects of these essays worth my time and consideration. On the whole, however, the collection was rather too dry to appeal to my reading tastes.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa.

Book Review: Dancing in the Mosque

dancing in mosque

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Dancing in the Mosque is a memoir of the author’s experiences growing up in Afghanistan during the war with Russia and then under severe oppression by the Taliban. Interspersed with details of her childhood, teenage years, marriage and eventual emigration are letters written to her son. The child was forcibly removed from Homeira by his father while still an infant, and the author’s motherhood revoked by the courts. Women have few rights in this riven country. Any abuse they suffer – and the abuse detailed here is both shocking and horrific – is blamed on their existence and behaviour.

For all that women in the UK complain about how they are treated by some men – and in saying this I do not deny that much could be improved – this book brings home how privileged we are that, thanks to the accident of birth, we live in a place where freedom and equality are still mostly aspired to. From an early age Homeira was aware that she and her sisters were not valued as highly as their brothers. The stories told to girls in childhood encouraged them to be quietly compliant and follow the rules that oppressed them. Boys, on the other hand, were told stories of adventure, hunting and exciting feats of derring-do.

“My grandmother believed that one of the most difficult tasks that the Almighty can assign anyone is being a girl in Afghanistan”

The war with Russia provided the scaffolding within which the author’s childhood was experienced. Her extended family lived together, as was tradition, and regularly retreated to the basement when aerial bombardment and tank attack caused further destruction to already badly razed infrastructure. Some family members went off to fight. Others became casualties of the regular, local gun attacks.

Homeira has always been something of a rebel, sneaking outside to see what was going on despite the danger. She climbed trees with her brother, the family prince who would mock and berate her. Although fearful for where such behaviour might lead, she received support from her parents, including when she wanted to write stories. There were books in their home until banned by the Taliban.

The tales recounted of deaths are obviously distressing but I found it harder to read of the abuse Homeira suffered at the hands of men. Girls were encouraged or compelled to stay at home, venturing out only when absolutely necessary and then chaperoned by a male relative. As a young teenager and at great personal risk, the author set up a secret school to try to tackle the growing illiteracy problem amongst children denied access to an education. She also wished to pursue her own writing and needed help with this. Even shrouded in her burqa she was regarded as a legitimate target by random male predators.

“I know that Islam has been turned into an instrument of retribution. It has been turned into a stone with which to strike people, especially women.”

As in so many religious organisations, the so called holy men were able to abuse children sent to them for indoctrination. It was necessary for boys to give witness statements if this behaviour became too blatant as female voices were not listened to. Silence and docility were required of them, with severe punishments meted out for non compliance.

“Your mother’s name does not appear in any paper document. My son, in your motherland the mentioning of a woman’s name outside the family circle is a source of shame.”

Afghanistan is portrayed as a beautiful country populated by a people who follow hate filled rules and traditions. What few freedoms a young girl may enjoy are curtailed once her breasts begin to show – her body is a source of shame that must be kept hidden. Girls are required to marry soon after they become capable of bearing children. Only their boy babies are valued. Polygamy is accepted as a right men may exercise.

“Do you know how painful it is to hear that even my own family members consider you “his” son and not mine? Do they mean to hurt me, or are they just victims of the law and the patriarchal traditions?”

Mention is made of the high suicide rate among young Afghan women. Homeira was witness to the self-immolation of friends. Despite all this she pursued her own activism and education, determined to write her stories and have them published under her own name.

The reader is told early in the story that the author now lives in America. Her journey to here – via Kabul, Herat, as a refugee and then student over the border in Iran before returning to Kabul – focuses on her early life and then marriage, with a brief, wider biography provided at the end. This paperback edition includes an afterword written after the Taliban returned to power in 2021.

“Like millions of others, I helplessly watched as our country fell to the dark forces inch by inch and we could not do a thing about it.”

There are certain gaps in this memoir – people mentioned whose outcomes are not detailed, and how Homeira adapted to life as an immigrant. What comes through powerfully though is the damage wreaked when females are treated as chattels to be subdued or disposed of. The author may have survived rebellious behaviour but at lasting cost.

Any Cop?: This is an important work in raising understanding of the everyday suffering of those routinely oppressed and undervalued by family and the society in which they must live. It provides a bitter indictment of what Islamic faith has been twisted into. A memoir that is both fascinating and disturbing.

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Intimate Resistance

intimate resistance

Having studied philosophy for a couple of years at university, when I was offered The Intimate Resistance to review it sounded right up my street. It wasn’t, however, an easy read. Described as a masterpiece, the culmination of years of work, the author has done well to condense the many ideas discussed into a book of less than two hundred pages. The result is a densely packed essay that, while interesting and well argued, requires the reader to maintain concentration. Several times I had to backtrack as I realised I hadn’t taken in the concepts propounded after several pages of parsing words.

Among other things, the early chapters cover nihilism, nothingness and angst. Not the cheeriest of ideas to consider. The human condition is described as a constant disintegration. There are many mentions of death and suicide.

“For a long time (and for too many people, even now) to live meant striving to survive, employing all of one’s strength to do so. In richer societies, however, this push to survive has given way to something else: the struggle not to disintegrate. And while the apparent enemy is much less terrible, failures and defeats are all the more frequent.”

The importance of a shelter – home as a refuge – is introduced. There was no mention of those for whom home is an emotional prison or place of danger. What does come to the fore is that individuals should look to themselves more than others in how they speak and act. The author extolls the value of everyday life, the ordinary and non-elitist, over wealth, fame or power.

“Evasion is not evasion of the world, but rather of my own self, from the nothing that I am, from the mortal being I am.”

Alongside the need to look inwards is the importance of socialising. This was challenging to read given our current situation, when other people are regarded by many as a biohazard and blamed for non compliance with a new belief system. I agreed with the author, especially the arguments around the wisdom of local, person to person, discussion as opposed to relying on screen based soundbite propaganda and supportive echoers, virtue signalling on social media.

“The sugar-coated scepticism propounded by cut-price intellectuals is painful to watch as they belittle ancient gods and old beliefs while fanning the flames of new dogmas”

Finding the strength to stand up for common sense – to resist – can appear in short supply when there is conflict over issues. The author argues that such strength also enables one to endure, to not fall into excessiveness, to avoid judging all and sundry.

“Strength is not expressed through heroism or daring, but rather through stability, faithfulness and perseverance. It doesn’t stand out, but provides confidence to those close by, embraces and helps.”

The author’s arguments are stated repetitively, perhaps to ensure that key points are understood from a variety of angles. He states a need for quiet reflection and careful consideration – done silently rather than indulging in the all too common verbal diarrhea that attempts to stifle dissent. Thinking rather than merely talking endlessly is to be encouraged.

“To think is an experience because it doesn’t leave things as they were”

Moving on, the difference between scientistic ideology and scientific reasoning is discussed. It is proposed that haughty and dogmatic pundits appearing on radio or screens spout more rubbish than is witnessed in a village café among ‘simple folk’ who have common sense and, importantly, an ability to recognise their ignorance.

“We are being overwhelmed by know-it-alls”

“They are all answers and leave almost no room for the questions to which they have no answers”

Throughout the text there are many references to the work of philosophers from ancient times through to the more recent thinkers. Etymology is mined in arguments presented.

There is discussion of act and potency. What came to mind for this reader was a consideration of those who loudly state that others, who do not agree with their point of view, must be ignorant, thereby alienating them in an attempt to silence resistance.

“We ‘obtain’ information. We don’t obtain the meaning of things.”

The constant flow of words in modern media is noise with little space for reflection and has proved damaging, not least by stifling calm and considered debate.

“Egocentric by definition, those who mutter nurture a sentiment of dissatisfaction and avarice […] muttering is the perfect example of the empty word”

The importance of human connection and conjunction is discussed, as is the value of silence. Attempts to stifle resistance through brow-beating and berating can lead to dangerous frustration when the vocal forget to listen.

“Violence comes from dogmatism”

To reiterate, the human condition, shadowed by nihilism, requires shelter and resistance alongside proximity to others.

“One’s fellow being, the home, the day to day care”

Resistance against following dogmatic words spouted by media pundits matters.

I have tried to highlight key points I took from this essay but should make clear that a great deal more is covered and all in greater and more eloquent detail. Also, it was first published in the author’s native Catalan in 2015 so, although I found the arguments highly relevant, the book was not written in the time of Covid. And this is important as it is about the human condition and therefore not tied to a particular time period.

An intense and inspiring reminder to resist the baying of the most vocal and continually question both others and ourselves. A stimulating reminder of the relevance of philosophical thinking in what is happening every day.

“Philosophy is simply self-questioning: we ask ourselves”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa Press.

Book Review: Fragments of an Infinite Memory

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I’m thirty-seven years old; I went online for the first time when I was nineteen; I can still say I’ve lived more than half my life without the internet, though this ratio will soon tip the other way.”

Maël Renouard is a French writer and translator. He has taught philosophy at the Sorbonne and the École Normale Supérieure. In this, his latest book, he muses on how day to day life has changed due to ease of access to the internet – smart phones providing a plethora of knowledge, news and entertainment on demand.

Across eleven chapters, the author offers short opinion pieces and recollections – vignettes that look at how sites such as YouTube, Wikipedia, Google Earth and Facebook have changed how people curate their lives and memories.

“Who hasn’t gone on the internet looking for past loves and friends one hasn’t seen in years? Time lost in search of lost time.”

He posits that views of the world and self have changed, and that internet apps have altered how we interact as well as how we anticipate and then record experiences.

The second chapter opens with a list of comments left below YouTube videos of hits from a number of past decades. The nostalgia evoked is, with almost equal frequency, a source of sadness and joy for users.

Such digital repositories have revised how people learn and live. And yet, there remains a hankering for what went before.

“someone told me that a few months earlier he had created a start-up that offered to print out SMS conversations on little scrolls (and perhaps soon bind them into books as well, he added); his business was flourishing beyond all hopes.”

As users move from physical to digital, what had once seemed commonplace becomes rare, such as letters sent by post. The author mentions the worry he had when required to send a paper document and, holding the sealed envelope, experienced doubt that he had included the necessary item. With email he could simply check attachments in his ‘Sent’ folder.

In later chapters there are musings on the rich man’s dream of achieving immortality by downloading brain contents – whatever that may involve. It is pointed out that this has largely been achieved already. Online we leave writing, recordings and images that others may access and interact with. He assumes these will still exist after we die.

The author discusses the idea that artificial intelligence is nothing like intelligence in humans – the latter requiring consciousness and intentionality. Articulating what this means can be challenging.

“In a sci-fi film, a police officer says to an individual he has just unmasked as a humanoid robot: “You can’t write a novel or a concerto.” The robot replies: “Can you?”

Our wariness at the prospect of artificial intelligence possibly rests upon an even greater fear than that of being annihilated, enslaved, replaced etc. by machines (though we are quick to portray this as an irreparable loss to the universe): the fear of being unmasked as ‘feeble, humdrum creatures, mostly incapable of creating anything at all.’

On memory, there are reminders that fears existed in ancient times, following the invention of writing, that human capacity to memorise may be adversely effected.

The internet may be a repository for: knowledge, recordings, and images. Only the individual retains the entirety of self.

Chapters explore how and what we photograph now that smart phones offer immediate access to captured images where once analogue film would have required expensive and delayed processing. Before we visit a place the internet can provide us with pictures of what we will see, that we may then photograph to prove we have been there and immediately share on line with ‘friends’ we may never have met. Examples are provided of how Facebook affects users, even its detractors.

“More and more, we compare reality to images, instead of comparing images to reality.”

There exist people who have created their desired personas through internet entries. It is even possible for a person to exist online but not in real life. The possibilities offered by the internet are reflected in works of fiction, with stories changing markedly when set after the years when use became ubiquitous.

Chapter nine, a favourite of mine, offers up a series of highly enjoyable contemporary tales written in a style reminiscent of the ancients. These provide salutary lessons, of those seeking recognition believed to be unfairly denied, or those who deign to be above using online means to promote themselves – by mentioning this they do so anyway.

Some of the thoughts, ideas and conjectures are more complex but by presenting them bite sized they are easily digested.

Any Cop?: Although sometimes rambling and digressive, this is an interesting perambulation through internet usage and the changes generated. A playful yet well considered explication of a modern marvel so many rely on and now take for granted.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Simple Passion

 

“I do not wish to explain my passion – that would imply that it was a mistake or some disorder I need to justify – but simply to describe it”

In 1989 Annie Ernaux embarked on an affair with a married man, one that would consume her entire existence for well over a year. Simple Passion is an examination of how a passionate love creates a vortex around which all other life events swirl, granted scant attention. The author grew indifferent to anything not related to her lover. She awaited his phone calls announcing intention to visit imminently – always accepted. Their afternoons together were spent indulging in sex accompanied by carefully selected wine and food – kept at the ready, just in case. She would purchase new clothes and lingerie for him to remove. She existed in a state of anticipation for the few hours they would spend together, although only when he chose.

It may be considered that Ernaux suffered from this treatment, yet it was accepted by unblinkered choice. The intense nature of passionate love pushes all else aside. Even her children – students who would occasionally stay with her – were required to be absent should this man deem to visit. She did not expect her boys to understand their mother’s sexual desires.

“From the very beginning, and throughout the whole of our affair, I had the privilege of knowing what we all find out in the end: the man we love is a complete stranger”

When not with her lover, Ernaux cultivated fantasies about their days apart. She had no wish to know anything about his wife lest this affect how she depicted the woman in her head. Ernaux did what she could to avoid running into him outside of their assignations, fearing he would not acknowledge her, or that her treatment of him give away to others how she felt. The affair was contained within the walls of her apartment. She knew it would end and this gave each visit a frisson – that he may never call her again.

“I haven’t written a book about him, neither have I written a book about myself. All I have done is translate into words – words he will probably never read, which are not intended for him – the way in which his existence has affected my life”

At under fifty pages this short work provides insight into emotions that are rarely acknowledged. Ernaux writes that she had no wish to discuss her affair with friends lest they assume their own experiences were similar – thereby diluting the intensity of feelings she valued highly. There was hurt and jealousy to deal with, all swept away by the glorious moments spent together when she would give herself over entirely to the pleasures of sex. As the months passed, her obsession only grew as his attentions waned.

The writing is forensic and measured yet charged with physical sensation – all credit to the translator, Tanya Leslie, for capturing meaning beyond what straightforward words can express. It is not told as a story in any sort of linear fashion. Rather it is a sharing of the depth of Ernaux’s capitulation to the pleasure of desire and sexual gratification.

This is not a book requiring judgement but rather one that shares the intensity of love when it is rationed and must end. Perhaps not for the prurient as, despite explicit descriptions, what it explores is feelings engendered.

A remarkable work that opens a window on the most personal of relationships and what goes on within. The structure and style of the text allow for pauses to savour. A recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Book Review: Dead Girls

Dead Girls, by Selva Almada (translated by Annie McDermott), investigates the unresolved murders of young women in the author’s home country – Argentina. Focusing on three girls murdered in the early 1980s, it is shocking although, sadly, unsurprising.

“Being a woman meant being prey.”

The author interviewed family and friends of the deceased, adding in her own experiences of growing up in a provincial town at a time when even phones in homes were rare. With few broadcast TV channels, news was mostly local. The author found this suffocating. Nevertheless, she felt mostly safe. The society she lived in chose not to acknowledge known incidents of domestic violence. It was drummed into her that if she dressed in a certain way, spoke to strangers or stayed out late she could be raped – and it would be her fault for putting herself in that situation.

The writing style is fragmented, jumping between investigation and informed opinion on each case. Lists of other unresolved murders of women are included. Femicide is far from unusual.

“My friends and I were still alive, but we could have been Andrea, Maria Luisa or Sarita. We were just luckier.”

Almada’a personal history is interwoven with her research into the dead girls’ lives – a reimagining of their last days. She uncovers horrific tales of gangs of boys raping individual girls with impunity, and of older men paying for a young girl to have sex with. The accounts are searing and disturbing although never voyeuristic. Life is not portrayed as happy for anyone mentioned.

An interview with the brother of one of the murdered girls highlights the arrogance of men in the country. This does not lead to any sense of fulfilment – several suicides are mentioned. Certain family members chose not to meet with the author, preferring to put what happened behind them. Others agreed to a visit then appear to have rehearsed what they were willing to share.

There are elements of the narrative that I found odd – perhaps a cultural difference. The author regularly consults a psychic – as do other characters featured – and gives credence to what is said.

That aside, this is a clear-eyed and compelling account of a journalistic investigation into murders for which no one has been punished. That they are a drop in an ocean of similar cases makes for a chilling read.

Dead Girls is published by Charco Press.

Book Review: A Woman in the Polar Night

A Woman in the Polar Night, by Christiane Ritter (translated by Jane Degras), is a memoir of the author’s year spent living with her husband, Hermann, and another hunter, Karl Nicholaisen, in a small hut on the coast of Grey Hook. This is a barren, stony flatland sticking out into the Arctic Ocean between Woodfjord and Wijdefjord on the north coast of Spitsbergen. Hermann often spent months in this part of the world where he would trap foxes and bears for food and the animal’s valuable pelts. Christiane joined him in the summer of 1934, just as Hitler was consolidating his power in Germany. Experiencing life in the Arctic changed her views on European values and concerns. The daily struggle to stay alive and the need to work with nature had a profound impact on the wealthy Austrian housewife who had left her teenage daughter behind to partake in this adventure.

The story opens with some background. Hermann had previously spent three winters in the Arctic as a trapper, gathering scientific information on the region. In letters and other written correspondence he encouraged his wife to join him, promising her a boudoir in the hut he would take in Spitsbergen. Eventually Hermann’s diaries persuaded Christiane that she could spend a comfortable and interesting winter relaxing, reading books and admiring the landscape. She set out on a ship from Hamburg with more luggage than Hermann had advised.

Arriving in the Arctic Christianne is met by her husband and they continue their journey on a small steamer. Also on board is Karl. The author learns for the first time that he will be living with them.

“We shake hands and smile at each other. We cannot do any more because Karl does not speak German and I do not speak Norwegian.”

Twenty-four hours later they arrive at Grey Hook and disembark. The hut they will be staying in is tiny but Karl and Hermann are delighted with it. A small ante-room leads to the interior containing bunks, a table and a damaged, smoky stove. The promised boudoir has not yet been built.

“I had imagined Spitsbergen otherwise.”

“I have to put it to myself as a hard geographical fact, how alone we are up here. Nobody as far as the north pole, nobody across the sea until Novaya Zemlya, and nobody for three hundred miles southward…”

The following year is covered in journal style, written mainly in the present tense. Thus the reader experiences the evolving situation as events occur. With no choice but to accept what she has taken on, Christiane observes her husband’s behaviour – so different to how he acts when at his family estate in Austria.

“I am amazed at my husband who seems to have quite forgotten how a European woman is accustomed to live. He seems to take it completely for granted that I will feel quite at home in this wretched hut, with beasts of prey for company. Anyhow, his way of introducing me to the wilderness does not seem very considerate.”

As well as contending with the beast of a smoky stove, Christiane must spend periods alone while the men go off to hunt. It is on one such occasion that she experiences her first Arctic storm and the hut is buried under snow. The elemental dangers and severely limited food supplies are recurring challenges. Added to these is the need to cope psychologically. The men have developed a stoicism that Christiane must cultivate. She has heard tales of women who have lost their minds in such circumstances and Karl fully expects her to be similarly afflicted.

As the never ending summer daylight leaves them, and the constant darkness of the winter months descends, Christiane must find routines to keep her from despair. Gradually she comes to appreciate the attraction of the region – its terrible beauty and man’s insignificance. Anxieties revolve around basic survival. It is only the essentials for life that have true value.

“Humanity has lost itself in the unnatural and in speculation. Only now do I grasp the real meaning and the world-transforming element in the saying: “Become as the peasants, understand the sacredness of the earth.”

The author writes of the cold, the soot from the stove, the lack of meat and other food supplies. She must learn to deal with damp sleeping bags, mildewed bedding and the necessary mending of worn out clothes. Christiane’s day to day role is as housewife, although she writes movingly of the bleak landscape that she eventually comes to appreciate. This is fine travel writing and nature writing as well as memoir.

As an explanation of why anyone would choose to live in the Arctic I remain perplexed. If man’s place in nature is understood by the author and the hunters then why can’t they leave the native creatures they encounter alone in their environment? Why stay?

Occasional artistic pencil sketches add to the imagery of the prose, although the polar bear depiction is distressing if evocative. The book is concluded with photographs taken of Hermann and Christiane and the hut at Grey Hook that brings home how basic it was.

 

An interesting and well written memoir that vividly portrays life in an extreme and inhospitable place. Despite being baffled as to why anyone would choose such a risky and invasive lifestyle, the tale enables the reader to appreciate how beautiful and balanced anywhere could be – if left to nature.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: No Place to Lay One’s Head

No Place to Lay One’s Head, by Françoise Frenkel (translated by Stephanie Smee), is a memoir written immediately following the author’s escape into Switzerland from Nazi occupied France in 1943. First published in 1945 by a Geneva based publishing house, the few copies printed were quickly forgotten. Rediscovered in 2015 the book was republished and subsequently translated. This edition includes a preface by Nobel laureate, Patrick Modiano. He writes:

“That curious impression I had upon reading No Place to Lay One’s Head was also the effect of hearing the voice of somebody whose face one can’t quite make out in the half-light and who is recounting an episode from their life.”

The tone of Frenkel’s writing is strangely detached, perhaps reflecting the trauma so recently suffered. She was fifty-three years old when she crossed into Switzerland and lived for a further thirty years, dying in Nice. Little is known of these later decades.

Born in 1889 to a wealthy Jewish family in Piotrków Trybunalski, an industrial town in Poland, Frenkel enjoyed beautiful books, music and intellectual conversation from a young age. She studied at the Sorbonne in Paris where she frequented the city’s libraries and bookshops. Her family back home lost many of their fine possessions during the occupation of the First World War but remained alive and well. The memoir does not detail what became of them later.

Frenkel’s first job was in a Parisian bookshop. It is known that she married yet her memoir makes no mention of her husband (he died in Auschwitz in 1942). When they decided to open a bookshop dedicated to French literature, their plan was to return to Poland. Finding that this market was already catered for they instead moved to Berlin and, in 1921, established a bookshop in what Frenkel describes as the city’s fashionable quarter. The enterprise quickly attracted

“experts in literature and languages, professors, students and members of that aristocracy whose education had been so strongly influenced by French culture”

The author writes warmly of this period, lasting for more than a decade, during which she befriended many of her clientele. The bookshop became a cultural focus, hosting events featuring many of the famous authors of the day. However, by the mid 1930s political events were intruding. As a foreigner and a Jew in Nazi Germany, Frenkel’s comfortable and intellectually rewarding way of life could not continue.

“Oh the memory of the emergence of a leader with the face of an automaton, a face so deeply marked by hate and pride, dead to all feelings of love, friendship, goodness or pity…
And clustered around this leader with his hysterical voice, a captive crowd capable of any violence, any murderous act!”

In 1939 the author fled to Paris. When France fell to the Germans she travelled to Avignon. This was the start of many months spent moving from place to place as she sought safety from the ever increasing politically motivated dangers. Jews were being rounded up and deported to camps. Frenkel was fortunate in having good friends willing to risk their own lives to protect her.

One aspect that is not explained, yet undoubtedly enabled her to survive, is the author’s wealth. When she was forced to abandon her beloved bookshop and leave Germany she was denied currency and took with her only what she could carry in two suitcases. Despite this she lives in hotels and eats in restaurants. When the round-ups start she pays exorbitant rates to board in small rooms. She bribes those she hopes will lead her to safety. Her French friends are vital in seeking out contacts and posting letters to those abroad who may be willing to assist but there is no suggestion that they provided the funds she required.

Life in France at this time was hard for everyone with the occupying forces requisitioning food supplies leading to a burgeoning black market. Many French citizens believed the propaganda and blamed foreigners and Jews for their difficulties. There were still good people willing to help the refugees but also many who took advantage, whatever the human cost, regarding the situation as an opportunity to make money.

This is a fascinating personal account of an horrific period of history. Its publication is timely given our current political situation. Frenkel writes factually, almost dispassionately, with little attempt to garner sympathy. Her words offer a lesson in the importance of retaining our humanity, whatever indoctrination is being disseminated on behalf of self-serving politicians.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: In the Restaurant

“To eat together, to drink, to entrust oneself to others’ care: this turns the restaurant into a place where the open society is both celebrated and lived out every day.”

In the Restaurant, by Christoph Ribbat (translated by Jamie Searle Romanelli), provides a potted history of the restaurant alongside the sociology and psychology of those who work in and frequent such establishments. Written in short bites of piquant text each entry is easily digested. This is a fun and fascinating account of the eatery’s growth and development.

What a modern European would think of as a restaurant came into being in Paris around 1760. The upper classes were enticed to eat at a new style of the ubiquitous inn, one which served ‘restorative’ bouillons for those who considered their palates sensitive. Customers were given a table to themselves rather than having to share benches with strangers. They could choose when they wanted to eat and select their choice of dish from a menu. Ambience and service were of the utmost importance.

Unlike other upper class venues at the time, anyone who could pay for their food and drink was admitted. Restaurants were furnished with niches and alcoves enabling a degree of privacy despite the public setting. Unusually, men and women appeared together. Before long these early restaurants were serving more than just bouillon. Specialities developed with views on quality and innovation disseminated by newly emerging writers – the restaurant critic. Interest in these Parisian ventures encouraged others to open restaurants around the world.

From the beginning staff were stratified with rigid, snobbish hierarchies emerging. The chef ruled in the kitchen which was kept hidden from customers. Waiters were go-betweens, tasked with making the customer feel welcome and valued. Despite the hard work and long hours, salaries were low – mortality amongst employees subjected to the health hazards in busy kitchens was high.

Chefs published cookbooks to raise their profile and that of their place of work. The dishes they developed evolved as increased tourism brought with it new culinary skills, ideas and tastes. Increased efficiency in the kitchen was achieved by introducing specialisms.

George Orwell was one of the first authors to draw attention to the more unsavoury aspects of a restaurant’s kitchen practices, based of his experience working there. Meanwhile critics were feted and the famous fed for free to raise an establishment’s profile. Over time food fashions changed as chefs sought to capture the zeitgeist. Customers continued to seek

“sophistication rather than satiation”

From a simple idea the restaurant developed in many directions. Industrialisation and automation brought with it fast food chains. The quest for Michelin stars encouraged the creation of labour intensive art to be consumed. Staff are still badly paid.

“It is possible to make a living from only one in five jobs in the American food industry.”

Although presented in anecdotal style with reference to individuals and particular establishments, the source notes for the numerous entries in this book are extensive. Detailed references are provided in a section at the end. What comes across is how much has changed and yet also remained the same. The restaurant remains

“a theatre for all the senses”

The players rely on both the artisanal and industrial workers. While customers may be hedonistic, enjoying the performance and eating experience, there remains widespread exploitation of staff and those who provide the base ingredients.

There are now many types of restaurant with wide varieties of operating philosophies. These cater for: the time strapped; those seeking comfort food; demands for fresh produce; the semblance of ethical practices; health fads and fashions. Although now everyday destinations for many, at the high end of the market success brings its own problems. One example cited was of the newly listed three Michelin star establishment that was asked by a potential customer where they could land their helicopter. The cost of such meals may appear obscene while people go hungry. Demand remains.

And such tales add to the interest of what is an entertaining and intelligent glimpse into the kitchens and public spaces of restaurants operating within a multitude of environments: capitalist and communist states; bustling cities and small town America; remote Spanish beach sides and Nordic forest. The author treads lightly yet gets to the heart of the issues faced by staff and proprietors. This is an entertaining smorgasbord of reading pleasure for anyone who has worked in or frequented a restaurant.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Shadows on the Tundra

Shadows on the Tundra, by Dalia Grinkevičiutė (translated by Delija Valiukenas), is a memoir of the young author’s deportation, along with her mother and seventeen year old brother, from their comfortable home in Kaunas, the then capital of Lithuania, to a Gulag in Siberia. At the time Dalia was fourteen years old but to earn food for her family was required to work sixteen hour days of gruelling manual labour alongside adults. The memoir was written following her escape aged twenty-two, the pages buried in the garden of her Kaunas home before she was arrested and deported again. The papers were discovered quite by chance many years later, after Lithuania had once again attained independence. They were published in 1997, four years after the author’s death. They provide an account of life during Dalia’s terrible journey and her first year in the Gulag. The memoir has an immediacy often lost when writers rely on long held memories. It is a devastating depiction of the dehumanising of a people.

On June 14, 1941 at three o’clock in the morning, following orders from Moscow, mass arrests and deportations began simultaneously in all of the Baltic states—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Juozas Grinkevičius, the head of the Lithuanian Bank’s currency commission and a mathematics teacher at the gymnasium, was taken to a concentration camp in the northern Urals where he died from starvation in October 1943. The extermination of his family had also been planned.

This book, his daughter Dalia’s account of her experiences, opens in June 1941 after she has been placed in one of sixty-three covered wagons being pulled by a train leaving Kaunas. Fifteen hundred Lithuanians are heading into an uncertain future.

“Secondary school, childhood, fun, games, theatre, girlfriends – everything is in the past. You’re a grown-up now. You’re fourteen. You have a mother to look after, a father to replace. You have just taken your first step in the battle for life.”

The train journey lasts for weeks. At stops along the way carriages are uncoupled as some of the deportees are bound for collective farms. Dalia’s worth is assessed as one would an animal. She is housed in a barracks and put to work in the fields alongside deported Ukrainians. Their supervisors treat them as criminals.

The next stage of Dahlia’s journey again starts by train but this time they are packed in so tightly they can only stand. Illness and lice now plague them. When finally unloaded they sleep in a stable, or perhaps it is a club hall – five thousand filthy, unwashed people, grateful to be able to stretch out and relax exhausted legs. They are near a river and a rumour circulates that they are to be transported to America. Dalia wants to believe this, it offers hope, but in her heart she cannot.

Housed in wooden sheds and selling their few possessions for food they sing songs from their homeland and gather wood from nearby forests to burn for heat. Soon they are moved onto barges and taken down the Angara River before being unloaded onto a beach. From there lorries transport them the three hundred kilometres to the Lena River. By now leaders have emerged within the group and they are learning of each other’s histories.

After a two week wait, the Lithuanians are once again loaded unto barges. They are being fed but there are still regular deaths. Those who had felt superior in their former lives try to give themselves airs and graces. Dalia understands that any influence they may have had, any ability to offer favours, has been stripped away.

Forests and lesser vegetation are replaced by tundra. Dalia is disembarked where the riverbank is steep and a cold wind blows down from the mouth of the Lena. The people find just a few tents and wooden structures alongside piles of bricks. It is now August 1942 and they have reached their destination – Trofimovsk Island in the Arctic. They must build their own accommodation on this previously uninhabited outpost if they are to survive. They wear only the clothes they brought from Kaunas.

The Soviets have decreed that a fish processing plant will be built and worked by these exiled people. The Lithuanians and then Finnish prisoners are racing against time before the onset of a frozen, blizzard filled winter. In Trofimovsk the sun sets in November and does not rise again until February.

Inadequate brick and timber shelters are built, each housing too many people. Those who can work, including Dalia, are sent each day to walk for miles into the tundra and search for logs carried down from the upper reaches of the Lena river. These must be chopped out of the ice, tied into rope harnesses and dragged to Trofimovsk to be used to heat the apartments and offices of the supervisors. The prisoners do not have the right to take any of this wood. It is the only source of fuel. Dalia sneaks out and steals it, at great risk.

Dalia describes the terrible pain – from illness and wounds caused by the rope harnesses – as she helps drag the logs up the steep and frozen shores of Trofimovsk Island. The workers have no strength or energy. Their feet are wrapped in frozen sacks tied together with ropes. They suffer from exhaustion, scurvy, frostbite, gangrene and starvation. Hundreds die.

The Trofimovsk superiors live in warm houses built from logs. They dress in furs, eat bread, butter, sugar and canned goods sent to the Soviet Union by the allies from America. They regard the Finns and Lithuanians as sub species, observing their: lice ridden, rag covered bodies; the damp and filth of their shelters; the pails overflowing with shit from diarrhea. The dead are piled up and left for the wild animals – around three hundred that first winter. Food is withheld from the living to force them to work until they drop. Any possessions the prisoners have managed to retain are taken by the supervisors for a pittance – gold watches for a bag of flour or tinned food that may then be stolen by the other starving people.

Those who somehow survive that first, terrible winter are offered small respite when a doctor arrives at the Gulag and demands that the supervisors allow the workers to eat the fish and other provisions that were always available – the supervisors would have preferred the barrelled fish to rot. Baths are constructed and clothing disinfected.

As the river starts to thaw the workers are sent to other islands to catch and process fresh fish – the working factory envisaged. Dalia lives in a basic yurt but after the horrors of the winter even the pain caused by dipping damaged hands into frozen water and then salting fish is tolerable because she can now steal enough to eat. Unlike the theft of the wood to burn at Trofimovsk, pilfering of fish is tolerated. The work they are doing is pointless anyway. In a country where payment is made per unit and corruption a way of life, the barrels leak and fresh fish mixed with putrid meaning produce rots and will eventually be dumped in the sea.

Dalia describes the main camp supervisor as a  psychopath. It is hard to understand how such treatment of other human beings could be allowed to occur, although at a lesser level brings to mind the actions of our current government towards refugees and the homeless.

This is a striking and searing depiction of survival in horrific circumstances. A disturbingly evocative yet vital read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.