Tag Archives: Meike Ziervogel

Other People’s Bookshelves #30 (Part Two): Kate Neilan

Hello and welcome, to the latest in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves which sees the series of posts turning 30! So to mark this special occasion we are heading to the delights of Essex for a big old party (grab your streamers, some cupcakes, a glass of fizzy and a paper hat) as we are hosted by one of my favourite bookish couples in the whole wide world. Today we join Rob and Kate from Adventures with Words, who I have the pleasure of joining along with Gavin every month to make Hear… Read This. Less about me, and more about them as I hand over to Kate (breaking the tradition of ladies first as I let Rob share his shelves earlier as they haven’t merged shelves yet, I am not judging their relationship on this basis though… much!) to introduce her lovely self and her shelves and all other bookish shenanigans…

I’m Kate – you might know me as @magic_kitten – and I’ve always been a huge reader ever since I can remember, and even before that if you believe my parents.  I work full time as Head of Citizenship and PSHE at a secondary school in Essex, although I originally trained as an English teacher at Cambridge, after doing my English Lit degree at Durham.  While I was there, I took the (very popular) Children’s Fiction module, which reignited my love for Young Adult books, to the extent that I wrote my dissertation on His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. I’m now one half of Adventures With Words, alongside Rob Chilver. He began the blog to discuss books, films, games and stories in general and in 2012 we started recording a weekly podcast too. Recently, I’ve branched out with my own ‘Young Adult Edition’. Do go to www.adventureswithwords.com and have a look.

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

I’m a dreadful hoarder and, until recently, I kept every book that I bought, even if I’d read it and not really thought much of it.  My book collection fills three ‘Billy’ bookcases and more; I’ve got two boxes of books that have yet to be unpacked since Rob and I moved in together over a year ago. Lately, though, I’ve had to be more ruthless.  We now have a ‘To go’ pile of books where books I know I’m not going to read again go, although, as yet, they’ve not actually gone anywhere yet! If I’m being honest, these aren’t even all my books. I still have a shelf in my old bedroom at my parents’ house full of all my Point Horrors and teenage reads. I’m thinking about retrieving them but where would they go?!

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

Before my most recent house move (I worked out recently I’ve moved more than ten times, taking into account university, teacher training and various flats and houses since moving out), I had my bookcases very carefully organised. I had three big red ‘Billy’ bookcases, one ‘half’ bookcase with three deep shelves, and one totally non-matching white one. That one housed my (excessive) CD and DVD collection, then my half-bookcase was for YA, and one large bookcase housed my university books (a mixture of textbooks, anthologies, Complete Works of Shakespeare/Chaucer etc and various novels, plays and poetry). The other two bookcases were organised roughly by genre, then by author; you could glance at the shelves and easily see the Tolkien, Iain (M) Banks, Isabel Allende and so on.

All this lovely system was completely destroyed when we last moved house; putting two sets of things into one house just doesn’t fit, so I gave up my white bookcase…and so it began! As I mentioned earlier, I’ve got two boxes of books that haven’t even seen the light of day yet – there wasn’t any urgency as they’re mostly university texts – but I’m sure I’ll want them one day… Eventually, during as summer holiday, I’ll take all these lovely stories off the shelves and rearrange them. I promise. We do have a “Blog TBR” bookcase (because piling them on the floor was becoming a little impractical) and some of these will graduate onto my own bookshelves after being read, reviewed and enjoyed.

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What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

Short answer? No, I’m really not sure, although I did spend quite a lot of my summer holiday aged 12 buying Point Horror books for a couple of pounds each from the second hand book stall in Norwich covered market… Still got them!

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

I have very varied taste in books – I read literary fiction, lots of genre fiction and Young Adult – and I’m not really embarrassed about any of my choices; as far as I’m concerned, it’s fine to read something that’s a bit cheesy or clichéd as long as you enjoy it. I do own the entire Twilight series (and have read them all) and I’ve got The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. No, they’re not literary masterpieces, but yes, they were enjoyable in their own ways.

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then given to me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

I have a lovely set of Tolkein’s fiction with matt black covers and a small picture on the front of each one, which I really love, and a fantastic set of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy in hardback, all first editions. These were from my parents and they’re very precious to me. I also have a very well-loved secondhand copy of Feersum Endjinn by Iain M Banks, my favourite of his science fiction novels, which was sent to me by the wonderful Gav of No Cloaks Allowed, The Readers and Hear Read This. He found it while browsing, opened up the cover, and saw that it was signed. After buying it, he tweeted about it and I jokingly tweeted back saying it would make my day (life) if I’d found it, and he sent it to me! What a lovely guy. Finally, I have one of only eight comb-bound preview copies of the final Artemis Fowl book, Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian. Rob knew I’m a huge fan of the series and managed to get hold of it, without letting on; as you can imagine, I was absolutely thrilled.

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What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

A bit like me, my parents have a house full of books, so I always remember them being there. One of the first “proper” books I read was Jane Eyre, aged 11, but I swiftly graduated to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and then The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is absolutely hilarious when you’re supposed to be asleep but in fact you’re reading about sweary robots under your duvet using a torch…

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

Neither a borrower or a lender be! Well, I’m not, anyway. I have a bit of a ‘thing’ about pre-read books; library books always have that slightly funny smell to them, other people crack the spine or turn over the corner of pages, a habit I managed to kick. I’m a huge recommender to others, especially my mum, but she buys her own copy rather than borrow mine because she doesn’t want to give it back in less than pristine condition! I’m very aware that this is all a bit weird; libraries are brilliant, they’re just not how I read. Plus, the last time I lent a book (a first edition hardback of the first in Isabel Allende’s YA trilogy) I didn’t get it back… #fuming

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What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

Funny you ask that, Simon – you may recognise the titles I’m about to mention.  Only earlier today, Rob came home from work with a lovely bookish goody bag for me. My newest acquisitions are Magda by Meike Ziervogel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough and The Gigantic Beard The Was Evil by Stephen Collins. I’ve also got a fantastic little Reading Journal. I find, when I’m reading, that I’d like to jot down ideas but I don’t fancy ‘texting’ them into my phone, so I’m looking forward to using this from now on. Hopefully, it should improve my reviews, too!

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

To be honest, I think I’m extremely lucky when it comes to books; there are very few that I don’t have but do wish for. I’d love a hardback copy of Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales for Young and Old and I’m awaiting the arrival of All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyld, but, other than that, it’s books that haven’t been published yet. I know they’re coming, because they’re part of series I’m reading: the final Heroes of Olympus book by Rick Riordan, and the next book in Charlie Higson’s The Enemy series, not forgetting the conclusion of Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne trilogy and James Dawson’s new book, Say Her Name.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I’m sure they’d think I’ve got very eclectic tastes – there’s a little bit of everything – but hopefully I’ve picked some great books from every genre, and hopefully they’d see things they’d love to try themselves.

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A huge thanks to Kate for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, though she really had no choice! If you haven’t go and visit Rob’s shelves, imagine all those books in one house, here! Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Kate’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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Does The Imprint Matter?

A few things have been making me ponder the imprints of books over the last few weeks. First up was when I was discussing a book and someone asked me what the imprint was and then if that imprint was very good which was something I wasn’t aware I give much thought to but then realised that I do. A bit like prizes actually thinking about it, you know the ones you really trust the selection of, or not as the case may be.

While in London I bumped into Meike Ziervogel who wrote Magda and also runs Peirene Press, who translate novella’s, which instantly reminded me I hadn’t read as many of their brilliant (they have all been very good so far) books as I have meant to. I also have a friend who has been looking for a new publisher and who asked me if I would recommend any, I instantly reeled off three or four who I would recommend because a) the staff there are lovely b) overall the books I read from their publishing house are just up my street – a publisher to trust on all counts. I also spotted a receptionist in a museum reading a Penguin Modern Classic this weekend, which I instantly recognised from the brand which whenever I see a copy of second hand I snatch up even if I know nothing about it because I trust them on previous experience.

This isn't a biased subliminal picture, it just looks pretty.

This isn’t a biased subliminal picture, it just looks pretty.

Mulling it (I like a good mull) all over made me wonder if I am partial to certain publishing houses in particular and where my bias lies. To get a negative out of the way, a certain book won a prize the other day and I looked at the publisher and rolled my eyes as I don’t really like them, not because of their books but because their publicity departments are a nightmare to work with. It shouldn’t matter but then again it does, a lot like one publishing house who has a publicists whose tweets were so up their own bottoms I blocked them and have avoided their books since. Bad, I know. Judgemental? Very. Yet once you have an impression of an imprint it sticks, good or bad. And it isn’t just the publishers you know in reality, it is also just the publishing houses you read regularly simply as a reader. For example Gran used to say she could generally trust Virago’s if she was stuck for a book to read.

Obviously I am working my way through the Persephone Classics (if a little slower than intended) and the reason for this is because through all the ones I have read, which I think is about ten or twelve now in total, maybe more, there is only one which I haven’t like and I have forgiven it everything because it is a Persephone – which is clearly a rather partial leaning isn’t it? I am hoping that when I re-read it (it was The New House by Lettice Cooper) I ‘get’ it the second time around and am 100% proven that all Persephone’s are brimming with wonder. Anyway, I digress…

Another pair of publishers that haven’t gone wrong for me are another two small independents (I need to mull over the bigger imprints more). They are Peirene Press (who I have already mentioned) and And Other Stories. Both feature novels that tend to be short-ish and cover fiction from all over the world and even though every book has something different about it you understand why it fits in the imprints umbrella, a certain je ne sais quoi if you will? I have actually rearranged my shelves recently so that these imprints’ titles all sit together and I can make a beeline for them as I must read more of them. In fact I really must pick one of them up next!

What about all of you? Do you have a certain publisher that you turn to when you need a good read and are pretty much certain any of their books will do the trick? (Feel free to tell me which one publisher it is!) Are there any you’ve had a pretty bad failure rate with? Do you have a classic or independent print you make sure you have the whole collection of and really support? Or does it simply not matter?

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Books of 2013; Part II

Blimey, it is the last day of 2013 and before we know it 2014 will be upon us. I hope you have something lovely planned for your New Years Eve? I will be back home in the Peak District with my Mum, aunties and all their children which will be lovely, we are combining Christmas and New Years all in one so much merriment will ensue I am sure. Anyway time for more of my books of 2013. I am continuing the tradition of the last few years, and my inability to whittle books down as favourites, and so this is the second of my books of the year post. Today I celebrate my top ten books that were published for the first time in the UK this year, yesterday I gave you all a list of ten corking books published prior to this year – do have a gander. So without further ado here are my favourite books published this year…

10. The Crane Wife – Patrick Ness

I absolutely adored ‘The Crane Wife’. It made me cry at the start, possibly at the end and a few time, with laughter, through the middle. It has been a good few weeks since I read the book now and I still find myself pondering what has happened to the characters since, always the sign of a good read, and the writing just blew me away.  Patrick Ness says in this book that “A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew.” I hope this story grows to be a huge success as it certainly deserves to be read and loved.

9. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil – Stephen Collins

There is one word that sums up the whole reading experience of The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil and that is ‘sublime’. I loved everything about it; the imagery, the atmosphere, the message at its heart, everything. It’s a very moving book and one you cannot help but react to, I even shed a tear or two at the end. There is no doubt that to my mind The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil probably has the best title of any book this year, it also looks set to be one of the most memorable books of the year for its contents too. A quite literally, or maybe that should be quite graphically, stunning book and one of my reads of the year.

8. Maggie & Me – Damian Barr

I really loved ‘Maggie and Me’. I related to it – something that only happens to your very core or bones once or twice in a blue reading moon – and empathised with it. It was the sort of book my younger self was crying out for someone to put in my hands. I can only hope some lovely relatives, librarians, teachers or other influential bods make sure this is passed on to both the younger generation, especially those who call rubbish things ‘gay’, and to everyone they know really. Books like this help make being different both more acceptable and understandable, we need them.

7. Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

There is no question that Hannah Kent has crafted an incredibly beautiful novel with ‘Burial Rites’. It is a book which has a sense of isolation and brooding menace throughout and a book where the prose is as sparse (you feel not a word has been wasted) as the Icelandic landscape it is evoking. It is one of my books of the year without question and one lots of people can expect in their season stockings in a few months time. I strongly suggest you read it.

6. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena – Anthony Marra

‘A Constellation of Vital Phenomena’ is one of those books that Gran would say ‘manages to educate you on something you have little knowledge of’ and ‘makes you walk in a strangers steps, even if the stranger is fictional’. It is a book that isn’t a comfortable read by any stretch of the imagination yet, and I know I am sometimes stuck on repeat when I mention this, I don’t think that fiction should always be neat and comfortable. Sometimes we need brave bold books and authors like this to highlight what is going on or has gone on which we know little about.  Anthony Marra took on a challenge that even an author on their tenth book might not take on and he excels at it. I urge all of you to give this book a try.

5. Alex – Pierre Lemaitre

What Lemaitre actually does with ‘Alex’, which is far more interesting and potent is make you question, as the twists come, what you think is and isn’t morally right and soon this gripping thriller starts to ask so really serious questions of its reader and their ethics. A very clever move indeed, provide a book that makes you think hard about what you might do or what you find to be the ‘right’ thing for someone to do whilst also creating a read which is a complete page turner that has the readers jaw dropping as they go. That is what has made it my thriller of the year so far, it’s genius, and I personally cannot wait for the next one in the Camille series.

4. All The Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

The way Evie weaves all of this together is just masterful. She doesn’t simply go for the route of alternating chapters from Jake’s present and her past, which would be too simple and has been done before. In the present Evie makes the story move forward with Jake from the latest sheep mauling, in the past though we go backwards making the reader have to work at making everything make sense. I had several ‘oh bloody hell that is why she is where she is’ moments with the past storyline before thinking ‘what there is more, that might not be the reason…’ Jakes mistrust of things it seems it catching. This style is a gamble and admittedly initially requires a leap of faith and chapter or two of acclimatizing to the structure, yet it is a gamble which pays of dividends by the end and if you see the end coming, and aren’t left completely jaw droppingly winded by it, then you are a blooming genius. I was honestly blown away.

2= Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Atkinson is a master of prose in my eyes. I love the way she gives the readers discreet asides and occasional knowing winks. I love her sense of humour, especially when it is at its most wicked and occasionally inappropriate. I think the way her characters come to life is marvellous and the atmosphere in the book, particularly during the strands during World War II and during the London Blitz (though I didn’t think the Hitler parts of the book were needed, even if I loved the brief mention of Unity Mitford) along with the tale of her possible marriage were outstandingly written. There is also the element of family saga, the history of Britain from 1910 onwards and also how the lives of women have changed – all interesting themes which Atkinson deals with throughout.

2 = Magda – Meike Ziervogel

Two of the biggest powers that books can have are to make us think outside our usual periphery or be a spring board to discovering more about subjects we think we know. Some books can do both, they are a rarity though. Magda, the debut novel from Meike Ziervogel, is one such book which gave me both a different outlook on something I thought I had made my mind up about and left me desperate to find out more when challenged. It is the sort of book where I simply want to write ‘you have to read this book’ and leave it at that so you all do, yet it is also one that is designed to be talked about and the questions it raises be discussed.

1. The Language of Dying – Sarah Pinborough

I thought The Language of Dying was a wonderful book for its rawness and emotion. It is a book that I really experienced and one which I am so glad I have read for the cathartic and emotional effects it had on me (I was openly weeping often) and proved that sometimes books are exactly what you need and can show you truths you think no one else quite understands apart from you. I can’t recommend it enough, without question my book of the year.

I have to say I struggled with this list rather a lot. If any of you have listened to the latest episode of The Readers you will have heard me shamelessly cheating as Gavin and I discuss twelve books we are each looking forward to in 2014. So I will here cheat slightly and say that Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English, Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave, Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, and particularly both Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka and Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, could all easily have made the cut. Maybe I should have created a top twenty?

So which of these have you read and loved? What have been your books of 2013? What are you doing for New Years Eve?

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HHhH – Laurent Binet

One of the biggest surprises for me in 2013 is that this year has lead to me doing a complete u-turn on my opinions of books based around war, in particular WWI and WWII, with special reservations for the latter. Having studied it so much at school and then read so, so, so many novels about it I guess I just felt there was nothing new to be found in it and actually that as a subject for me it was over done. Then I went and read HHhH by Laurent Binet, and indeed Magda by Meike Ziervogel, and the originality of the writing and the way the books were structured and what they were trying to say made them stand out and ignited my interest in the subject once again from the very different angles which they portray events. 

Vintage Books, 2012, hardback, 336 pages, translated by Sam Taylor, kindly sent by the publisher

Laurent Binet’s HHhH is a work which cleverly tells three stories. Firstly there is the story of Operation Anthropoid, which during WWII in 1942 saw two parachutists sent on a mission from the UK to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich. The second story is that of Heydrich himself and how he came to be the chief of the Nazi secret service and on of the most trusted and feared men in the regime. Thirdly it is also the story of a man called Laurent Binet who is trying to write a book, be it fiction or non-fiction, on Heydrich and Operation Anthropoid. If you think this meta-factional book sounds confusing then please don’t because it is actually utterly amazing and is a book likely to make you gasp, laugh and cry often within a few pages.

For some people the very idea of the author of a work popping into the text would be an annoyance regardless of the subject matter, with something as harrowing as the second world war it is a huge risk for Binet to take but one that I am so grateful he did as this is what stops it from becoming a book with just facts and figures, no personality, no emotion behind it and no real lasting effect. Binet’s narrative/writing has all of those things in abundance and what makes it all the more affective is that he writes the book from the first moment he really discovered the story of Operation Anthropoid when he discovered where it ended and we join him from that moment as his interest and intrigue are piqued and as he discovers more and more about these brave parachutists and this monster Heydrich, and all they do, we as the reader also become more and more engrossed.

There were still fresh traces of the drama that had occurred in this room more than sixty years before: a tunnel dug several yards deep; bullet marks in the walls and the vaulted ceiling. There were also photographs of the parachutists’ faces, with a text written in Czech and English. There was a traitors name and a raincoat. There was a poster of a bag and a bicycle. There was a Sten submachine gun (which jammed at the worst possible moment). All of this was actually in the room. But there was something else here, conjured by the story I read, that existed only in spirit.

I don’t think I have learnt so much about World War II from a book I have read in all my 31, nearly 32, years. Considering that I studied it for about five years in my history lessons at school this is quite something. I had no idea about some of the smaller but utterly fascinating facts behind this time period; that the Hitler wanted authors such as Aldous Huxley, Rebecca West, HG Wells and Virginia Woolf; that the Nazi’s built their own brothel (Kitty’s Salon) to film other Nazi’s to see if they were true to the regime or not. Nor did I know of some of the utterly horrific things, like what an ineffectual plonker Chamberlain was, the plans for Nazi attack cells in all the cities all over the UK and the horrendous atrocities such as Grandmothers Gully in Kiev.

Heydrich in Prague

This could have become too much and with all the descriptions of how Heydrich changed how Jews, and anyone who got in his way, were killed could simply have made me want to run away from the confrontational imagery that it depicts. Binet does something clever here, which could have easily epically failed him, by inserting a sort of light humoured alternative (or interrupting)voice of himself as he shows how farcical some of the Nazi’s idea’s were, and how far delusions of grandeur went, as well as interjecting his own voice about the nightmare of writing a book.

Of course I could, perhaps I should – to be like Victor Hugo, for example – describe at length, by way of introduction, over ten pages or so, the town of Halle, where Heydrich was born in 1904. I would talk of the streets, the shops, the statues, of all the local curiosities, of the municipal government, the town’s infrastructure, of the culinary specialities, of the inhabitants and the way they thin, their political tendencies, their tastes, of what they do in their spare time. Then I would zoom in on the Heydrich’s house: the colour of its shutters and its curtains, the layout of the rooms, the wood from which the living-room table is made. Following this would be a minutely detailed description of the piano, accompanied by a long disquisition of on German music at the beginning of the century, its composers and how their works were received, the importance of Wagner…and there, only at that point, would my actual story begin.  

As I said this is very risky some people might be put off by sections such as the above or lines such as Once again I find myself frustrated by my genre’s constraints. No ordinary novel would encumber itself with three characters sharing the same name – unless the author were after a very particular effect or All good stories need a traitor. Personally I thought it was brilliant. He both manages to show the horrors of the time and then also highlight with hindsight how utterly horrendous those horrors were, which gives the book a double whammy effect. He also holds your hand when things get tough in a way; you are going through this story and this time together and as his enthusiasm and admiration for the parachutists increases, along with his mounting anger at the Nazi regime, so do yours.

I found the ending of the book incredibly emotional and incredibly hard going but boy, oh boy, was I glad (which seems the wrong word, maybe thankful is better) to have gone through it. HHhH is one of those rare books which change your perceptions, where you feel your world has been altered by reading it. In Binet’s case (and I must here say a huge congrats to Sam Taylor with his translation and capturing the authors nuances) it made me not only think about the importance of remembering what happened in WWII he also reminded me of the importance of history and of how and why we need to keep telling these stories – and indeed the stories of how we tell these stories. Everyone should read this book; I think it should be on syllabuses in schools around Europe.

To hear more discussion on Laurent Binet’s HHhH listen to the first episode of Hear Read This where you can hear myself along with Gavin, Kate and Rob talking about it in more detail.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Laurent Binet, Review, Vintage Books

Confronting vs. Comforting Fiction

I have always been puzzled when I have heard someone say the words ‘oh no, I couldn’t read that, it sounds just too awful’. This has happened on various occasions but most recently when I have been telling people about Meike Ziervogel’s Magda, which I told you about on the blog yesterday. Despite me having raved about it to people’s faces/over the phone/via email the idea that they would be reading about a woman, who was not only part of the Nazi Party but who also killed her own children, is just abhorrent. Initially it makes me cross (no, not because they are questioning my judgement of a book, though now you mention it…) because it seems so closed minded, then it makes me feel a bit sad because without reading some books, not all, that challenge and confront us how do we learn. Especially in the safety that fiction provides.

Confronting Books

A selection of books I own deemed ‘too confronting’. Or are they?

Of course it is all dependent on why we read I suppose. Some people just want to escape life with a book and I completely understand the joy a comfort read can bring. Not just in hard times though that is when they can work their magic the most, if I am ever feeling down or things are a bit much then nothing works its charm like Agatha Raisin will, just in the day to day and that is how it should be. Reading should be fun and escapist. Yet surely sometimes we need to mix things up a bit don’t we?

I used to be in a book group with some colleagues of an old workplace many moons ago and we had one member who, lovely as they were, would frustrate me endlessly. The amount of books we couldn’t read because they would be offended was incredible. No murder, no war, no third world poverty, no torture, no child abuse/abduction, definitely no Nazi’s (mention of the holocaust would cause panic), no gratuitous violence, no hardcore sex… the list went on. Note:- this is not a list of things I go out of my way to look for in books. It didn’t leave much we could read. I ended up leaving after having read The Other Boleyn Girl this person announced they couldn’t read it because incest was suggested so they had to stop.

This I understand was an extreme case, though it thrilled me that it made my aversion to horses and boats in books seem minor. Even so I remember at the time thinking ‘how on earth do you watch the news?’ Some of the best books I have read have been ones that have completely taken me out of my comfort zone and confronted and challenged me. They are the books which have made my view on the world now, Magda is one and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is another, the latter about the conflict in Chechnya which horrified me with its unflinching descriptions of what has been going on in such recent history, yet was an incredibly moving and thought provoking piece of work. Both will be in my books of the year.

Yesterday I mentioned how as I started to understand Magda through Meike’s telling of her story I started to feel slightly uncomfortable that people might think I was a Nazi sympathiser, this obviously couldn’t be further from the truth. It was something that Meike herself said worried her before the book came out, especially when she wrote about her grandfathers involvement in the Nazi’s, yet to deal with its past she felt there needed to be a book like that as it is still something that has to be dealt with rather than brushed under the carpet.

I love a good crime novel especially with a really evil psychopath at its heart, particularly the ones with all the autopsies no pun intended. I won’t lie to you all, I find it grimly fascinating. Some people can’t read crime though. Unlike me they don’t like being scared, chilled and thrilled in the comfort of their own home on the sofa with a nice cup/glass of something. I do but this doesn’t mean I want to go off on a killing spree next weekend, or indeed perform an autopsy ever in my life for that matter. Just as, should I read Lolita, Tampa etc, it doesn’t mean I want to sleep with underage youths – nor does the author. I don’t hunt them down, well not the latter, I do a good crime novel though. I want to be horrified or challenged in a fictional safety net, like jumping on a rollercoaster only with optional biscuits and less g-force. Fiction, with its slight distance, can make characters come alive we don’t want to get in the minds of , be they complete inventions or fictionalisations of real people, but might learn something by understanding. At least that is how I see it.

What about you lovely lot? Do you prefer a comforting read or a confronting one? Do you worry what people will think of you if you read a book on a certain subject? Do you only read comfort reading or confronting reading and if so why? Do you think fiction is a safe place to be confronted by the controversial? Are there any subjects that should be taboo?

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Magda – Meike Ziervogel

Two of the biggest powers that books can have are to make us think outside our usual periphery or be a spring board to discovering more about subjects we think we know. Some books can do both, they are a rarity though. Magda, the debut novel from Meike Ziervogel, is one such book which gave me both a different outlook on something I thought I had made my mind up about and left me desperate to find out more when challenged. It is the sort of book where I simply want to write ‘you have to read this book’ and leave it at that so you all do, yet it is also one that is designed to be talked about and the questions it raises be discussed.

Salt Publishing, 2013, paperback, 113 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I have to say I wasn’t sure what to expect from Magda before I read it. I was a little trepidatious, as I would imagine other readers may be, because I knew it was about Magda Goebbels and knowing of her relationship with the Nazi’s, Hitler and, of course, because of what she did to her children.

All these facts flashed through my head, but one thing that I believe strongly is that some books should confront us and make us face the darker aspects of life. After all, if we brush things under the carpet eternally how can we deal with things, change things and most importantly not let certain events repeat in the future. It is questions like that which a book like Magda asks; in this case can we understand a woman who is depicted as the ultimate monster, a Nazi and a child killer?

The first issue I think a book like Magda brings up the fact that there is a lot of stigma, for obvious reasons, towards anything that tries to humanise or explain someone who was a Nazi. There is that worry of ‘what will people think of me if I empathise with a character like that?’ Yet we never think about that when we enter the realms of a crime novel do we? I have read many a novel where I follow a psychopath as they kill at will before, hopefully, they caught. I have enjoyed them but this has never made me question if I am a psychopath. Because the character is completely fictional it is ok, if the character is real and known as a villain then it is a whole different matter. When I discussed Magda with Meike one of the things she said she would worry about having written it was that people might think her a Nazi, just as she did when she wrote of her Grandfather’s in the Guardian. That is how potent and raw the subject still is.

Whilst I don’t think a reader will ever empathise with Magda, I myself didn’t, I do think that you will begin to possibly understand why she might have become the person she did, especially when you come to the ‘speculative’ section which I thought was a brilliant piece of writing in terms of Magda’s possible psychology.  There is a question mark as to Magda’s motives behind joining the Nazi’s but some people joined them because they thought it would end the world problems as they saw them. I don’t agree with what they thought, and what they did it was horrific, yet I found Meike’s novella made me look at her and the Nazi movement from a very different aspect and I admired the bravery Meike has in trying to explain Magda’s story in as unbiased a way as possible. She is never quite a monster nor simply a woman doing what she thought was right, we get something in the middle. Meike fictionally tries to look at the reasoning behind her actions and creates a complex woman who was the product of her emotional and sometimes very difficult past and also the political climate of her country and generation.

Now I must talk about the prose, I do feel for Meike because before anyone (myself included) discusses the prose, characterisations etc invariably they have to defend the book for its subject matter, which isn’t just about the Nazi’s. Anyway, I loved the style in which Meike has written Magda. At 113 pages we don’t get her life story in full, or indeed in chronological order, we get snapshots of Magda’s life, the young girl in the convent, the background behind that, her first marriage and her rise in society leading to meeting Hitler and the events after that.

This is where Meike throws in another masterstroke. Magda is told through three different narratives, interestingly (I have just noticed now) none are from the point of view of Magda herself. We have Magda’s mother, Augusta, who tells of her childhood and how she first came into contact with the Nazi movement and who clearly had a very difficult relationship with her daughter. Plus Magda’s eldest daughter, Helga, who describes the time in the bunker in diary form – reminding me of Anne Frank and then making me think how these two girls found themselves in the most horrendous situations through no fault of their own, that really made me think and was incredibly emotional to read. These narratives highlight Meike’s other main theme in the book, mother and daughter relationships. For the rest of the book we have an omnipresent narrator so we never look at the world quite through Magda’s eyes which I found very interesting, it was as if Meike did need a certain amount of distance from her.

One of the loveliest moments of my life was when Magda came to me and said she wanted to train for domestic service rather than continue studying. I’d had my doubts, you see, that she’d ever be a respectable person, what with her head having been turned, twisted really, round and round and round like in a vice, so that it was perched there on her long thin neck, looking down on everybody, especially her own flesh and blood, her own mother. With those cold… those ice-cold eyes. But he put her back on the straight and narrow, didn’t he?

After initially reading Magda I was hugely impressed by it and thought it a very brave and often uncomfortable tale but one which needs to be so. Since then the book has lingered with me and my admiration of what Meike has done has grown and grown. It has made me ask myself a lot of questions about perceptions and how we look at and deal with history. It has also seen me go off and read other books, such as Laurent Binet’s HHhH (review coming soon), and documentaries and films, such as Downfall, which look at these horrendous events yet with more impartiality. A book which does that is one we should all be reading, so find a copy. It has been one of my reading experiences of the year.

If you would like to hear Meike Ziervogel in discussion with me about Magda then do head here. It is a fascinating discussion even if I say so myself – left me with even more to think about!

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Filed under Books of 2013, Meike Ziervogel, Review, Salt Publishing

Not The Booker, Not Quite Live…

One of the highlights of my bookish year so far (and there have been a few) has been being asked to be on the Guardian’s Not The Booker inaugural judging panel. There were two things I hadn’t quite taken into consideration though. Firstly, I didn’t think I would get to meet any of the authors who I was judging the works of, especially one of them who I had lived up to my name a little with, yet this weekend at the Not The Booker event in London I did. Initial awkwardness was encountered, eventually I think it ended up being okay though as all the authors were lovely. The other thing I didn’t expect was that I would have to judge ‘live’ – on air on the Guardian website and YouTube – yet this morning it was. And I thought I might share the experience with you (settle down with a cuppa)…

Hopefully I didn’t come across like too much of a wally. I am in bed with a bad case of man flu since coming back from London so I had to make myself presentable (I have pyjamas on from the waist down, ha) and I was worried my ‘literary musings’ tended to be along the lines of ‘I just liked it’. Oh and yes those are my bookshelves!

We came up with a winner in the form of the marvellous ‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson, but it wasn’t easy – least of all because I was constantly thinking ‘people might watch this so watch your potty mouth Savidge’ – as the competition was super strong, especially from ‘Magda’ by Meike Ziervogel which is amazing and I will be telling you all about very soon. In fact I will be telling you about all the books in some form or another as I really want to discuss the debut novels of Zoe Venditozzi and Lucy Cruickshanks who I think might be two huge authors in the future. Not sure if Gaiman will catch on. Plus the debate of genre and chick-lit that Tullet’s novel brought up. So watch this space for more, and should any book prizes be looking for judges, well…

Let me know what you think of the video if you have a chance to watch it, would you like all prizes to be this ‘open’ to readers? Have you read any of the books shortlisted for the Not The Booker? Have you read this winner or any of the previous NTB winners?

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