And so I come to the end of my brief foray into myths beginning with Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and going on to Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Winterson’s Weight and ending somewhat appropriately with Karen Armstrong’s A Short History Of Myth. I like to tie things together and Armstrong’s book is like an afterword to my mini reading project.

It’s a short non-fiction account of the place of myth in literature and society and inevitably this touches upon belief as myths are often the basis of both history and religion. I wasn’t sure how Armstrong would manage it as going back into proto-history, before the written and oral traditions flourished, is like treading on water.

Although a little tedious and overwhelming at times, there were several fascinating strands in Armstrong’s short history. From the early stone age, bronze age, the Assyrian, Mesoptamian and Egyptian civilisations to the Green, Roman and Judeo-Christian world, it’s an absorbing study into how early priests and scholars assimilated and incorporated their basic understanding of nature and the world into their daily cosmology. These evolved into ideologies and structures of government and social rule simultaneously transforming the myths themselves as people’s understanding and needs changed.

Although I was expecting a more western-centric history, that is a failing on my part as Armstrong shows just how diverse and rich our literary tradition is. And in turn, it shows that however admirable her attempt is, this is a huge undertaking and probably needed a more extensive study. But it certainly opened my eyes to the wealth of stories out there and I will be sure to delve further into mythologies, and not just the Greek myths.

What if you read Lost Illusions and, instead of moving to New York, living in a garret, self-publishing your poetry, writing book reviews, and having love affairs – instead of living your own version of Lost illusions, in order to someday write the same novel for twenty-first-century America – what if instead you went to Balzac’s house and Madame Hanska’s estate, read every word he ever wrote, dug up every last thing you could about him – and then started writing?

That is the idea behind this book.


Elif Batuman
‘s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them is essentially an ode to Russian literature. Like everyone who has an interest in classic Russian literature, you often wonder what the pull is. What is it about these novels that keep you wanting to read them, coming back for more, even though they are often difficult, confusing and in most cases, put together like bricks? In The Possessed, Batuman goes beyond just deconstructing the novels she read and studied for her PhD, she looks for the inspirations behind them, follows in the footsteps of the writers, tries to understand the psyche that created such stories, often depressing, violent and fatal. The underlying melancholia, the vast hopelessness, the weight of history: where does it all come from? And in order to do that, she travels to the heart of the literature, to Russia and the countries that once formed its loose empire.

Written in flowing prose, Batuman chronicles her travails as a graduate student at Stanford trying to unravel the intricacies of the lives of persecuted Russian writers such as Isaac Babel.

The Collected Works of Isaac Babel fills only two small volumes. Comparing Tolstoy’s Works to Babel’s is like comparing a long road to a pocket watch.

And yet, in the short tragic life of Babel, we see all that we need to know about the dangers of literature and literacy in Russia, often manifested in the importance and symbolism of a pair of glasses (something common in many a totalitarian regime). Taken away, they deprive a man from seeing and reading. For a writer whose life is words, it is akin to a death sentence.

Batuman also travels to Uzbekistan with an almost-estranged boyfriend, Eric. There she home-stays with a travel agent and takes lessons on the Uzbek language from a philosophy student and Uzbek literature from a professor. In doing so, we learn about the creation of the Uzbek language by the USSR which incorporated myths and hystories of the surrounding lands. Batuman, who is of Turkish origin, finds the parallels with the Turkish language and culture fascinating although this is often repudiated by the Uzbeks themselves. Although funny, it’s actually rather chilling to see how easily creation myths can be constructed, however hodge podge, and given to the people as literal truth and taken as such.

When Batuman travels to St. Petersburg to visit the recreation of the famed Ice House by the Empress Anna, niece of Peter the Great, and immortalised in the novel by Ivan Lazhechnikov, a contemporary of Pushkin’s, she finds herself only amongst tourists who have come to view the structure. The academics and experts whom she expected to hot foot it there were nowhere in sight. And when she confronts them, they come up with various excuses such as ‘why the need?’ and ‘it’s all in the book.’ Hilarious stuff.

The Possessed is a travelogue, a critique, an introduction of Russian literature all punctuated with such detail as the methods of torture used in Imperial Russia, the idiosynchracies of the people weighed down by history, and this is what makes the book so readable.

It’s true that Russia subjected its writers to an unusual degree of state control; consequently, it’s also true that nowhere in the world has literature been taken more seriously.

The Possessed is the original title of Dosteovsky’s novel The Demons with it’s ‘eerily handsome’ protagonist Stavrogin. Batuman writes about the The Demons as a novel that encompasses her own obsession with her Russian studies, it’s literary greats such as Tolstoy, Dosteovsky, Chekhov, Pushkin amongst more obscure writers.

I read this as a starter before my main course of Tolstoy’s War & Peace which I plan to read this summer. In fact, now I’ve got rather a long list of Russian novels I’d like to read including Dosteovsky’s The Demons. Having grown up with a father with Marxist leanings and a love of Russian literature, this book gave me a glimpse into why so many people find Russia so fascinating. Batuman’s The Possessed is a wonderfully erudite, honest and yet down to earth look at the destructive beauty of Russian literature and its history and after you’ve read it, I guarantee you’ll want to get stuck into some Russian literature too.

I’ve been discussing this book with my family and friends and although no one has read Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov (apart from my American friend), I’m loving all the suggestions I’m getting about what Russian novel I need to read next amidst all the sighs about their complexity and perplexity, of course. Do also check out this article on Literary Russian London.

I would like to thank Granta Books for kindly sending me a copy of this book to review. I loved it!

After I read Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson, I knew I had to read A Woman by Berlin which she discussed in a talk I attended. And by chance, I came across a copy in my local charity shop and snapped it up. I found reading about the rapes by Russian soldiers after the fall of Berlin very disturbing, partly because it was something I knew nothing about even though I’ve read my fair share of history books. It really hits home how things, usually that to do with violence against women, are systematically brushed under the carpet and not spoken of. It’s a disgusting and disappointing habit.

A Woman in Berlin chronicles life in Berlin from April 24th to June 22nd 1946 just as Berlin fell to the Red Army. The narrator is a female journalist, well read, well traveled, alone who tries, together with the remaining people in her block of flats, to get through the terrifying days as the war draws to a close and the encroaching dangers of the Russian army.

What really surprised me about this account was how matter of fact the narrator is in her rendition of these fraught days. Not only is she discussing her own experiences but she is a witness to the experiences of everyone around her. They are her neighbours, colleagues, not necessarily friends. Yet what they all experience is collective trauma, and this makes them strong. Because of this, they are able to talk about the terrible things that have happened to them. She notes down how conversation has broken down, how propriety is no longer observed, how the women greet each other with the questions, ‘How many times were you raped?‘ I cannot think of anything more shocking. And what is most disturbing is that she is aware how in times of peace, a rape would tear a community apart, bring down swift justice and scar the women. But in times of war, where every woman has experienced rape, there is no other choice but to get on with it. Of course, many did not get over it and some even committed suicide so as not to get raped, but the sad thing is that many women had to go through such trauma, get on with their lives and later have to deal with the inability of their men to deal with it. And this naturally leads to a change in how they viewed their men.

I think the thing that is so impressive about this book is that it is written so well, and deals with such a traumatic subject with a light and manageable touch that when you do take pause to think about all that she has discussed, it hits you doubly hard. I don’t think I’ve read an account of rapes quite like this one. It’s unsentimental, matter of fact, the narrator is someone you can’t help but admire, someone with verve, vitality and a will to carry on but one who doesn’t let herself feel sorry for herself.

Of course, I’m aware this has been edited to allow for flow, but it’s an admirable piece of written history that really needs to be read more widely. And by that, I do not mean just by women.

There is also a film adaptation of this book, The Downfall of Berlin – Anonyma, which I’m hoping to watch soon.

Although this isn’t strictly literature, I read this as part of Caroline and Lizzys German Literature Month.

When I first read a P.D. James mystery, I remember being very surprised that it was written by a contemporary author. The style and tone of the novel reminded me greatly of the Golden Age mystery writer such as Allingham, Christie, Marsh and Sayers except for all the modern electronic contraptions and the internal hierarchy of New Scotland Yard. James’ detective fiction is intellectual, her detective Adam Dalgliesh is a poet as well as sleuth and there is something satisfyingly dark about her probing into the crevisses of the human mind.

So of course I had to grab the chance to go and see her in talks with Ruth Rendell at the Soho Literary Festival a few weeks ago. It’s my first time seeing them together and I hope it isn’t my last. The two are great friends and were extremely witty and self-deprecating. It’s probably the only time I’ve ever heard someone addressing Ruth Rendell as ‘dear’. P.D. James didn’t look her 91 years, nor Rendell her 81, and both were candid about their expectations on writing, their fear of losing their work, their perplexity with computers (only James as Rendell is pretty computer savvy) and who will write their obits. It was probably one of the best talks I’ve been to, so if you do get a chance, go and see them as they are truly amazing women.

I’ve read most of James’ mysteries except for her last two which I bought and got signed. But what I was really interested in is her dissection of detective fiction, Talking About Detective Fiction, since she is the current doyenne of British crime fiction. It’s a rather slim book divided thematically with lots of references to writers she admires and who have contributed and made this genre what it is. There’s Conan Doyle, Poe, the Golden Age writers, Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Allingham and Tey, hard-boiled and noir, Hammett and Chandler, Dibdin and others who set their crime novels abroad, the rise of historical crime fiction and the current fascination with Scandinavian crime. The bits I enjoyed most were her discussion of crime writers who are now mostly forgotten, and I came away with a list of novels to hunt down.

James also discusses how many of the early 20th century British crime writers often had successful careers in varied fields such as medicine, the law, economics and music and yet felt compelled to pen these puzzles not just for their readers but for their own amusement adhering to the strict rules stated by Ronald Knox in the preface to Best Detective Stories 1928-29:

The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the narrative but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow. All supernatural agencies are ruled out. There must not be more than one secret room or passage. No hitherto undiscovered poisons should be used or, indeed, any appliance which needs a long scientific explanation. No Chinamen must figure in the story. No accident must help the detective, nor is he allowed an unaccountable intuition. The detective himself must not commit the crime or alight on any clues which are not instantly produced for the reader. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, should be slightly, but no more than slightly, less intelligent than the average reader and his thoughts should not be concealed. And, finally, twin brothers and doubles generally must not appear unless the reader has been duly prepared for them.

I’m sure many writers struggled to stay within the rules and I, for one, enjoy a bit of the exotic in my mysteries.

Another interesting point was the paradoxical nature of cosy crime, usually set in a peaceful little village or a stately home.

They deal with violent death and violent emotions, but they are novels of escape. We are required to feel no real pity for the victim, no empathy for the murderer, no sympathy for the falsely accused. For whomever the bell tolls, it doesn’t toll for us. Whatever our secret terror, we are not the body on the library floor. And in the end, by the grace of Poirot’s little grey cells, all will be well – except of couse with the murderer, but he deserves all that’s coming to him. All the mysteries will be explained, all the problems solved and peace and order wil return to that mythical village which, despite its above-average homicide rate, never really loses its tranquillity or its innocence.

Somewhat scathing, yet an understandable criticism made by many modern crime writers who feel these novels are hardly realistic. Yet we, and they, still read them and you can sense James’ tongue-in-cheek tribute to the Golden Age writers yet also feel her deep attachment to them. Her no-nonsense, down to earth approach is rather refreshing.

She also discusses Dorothy L. Sayers and her concern with the issue of surplus women and the nature of women’s place in society which were mirrored in these novels by her and others. And yet, James writes,

I cannot think of a single detective story written by a woman in the 1930s which features a woman lawyer, a woman surgeon, a woman politican, or indeed a woman in any real position of political or economic power.

I’ve highlighted the areas that hold a special interest for me and although there is clearly a focus on early 20th century British crime fiction, James does discuss the modern trends and the evolution of crime fiction from amateur posh sleuth to proper detectives and police with all the scientific know-how. It would be interesting to read a more global version of this discussion just because crime writing is a flourishing genre in many countries. Detective fiction, as many crime writers feel, provide a mirror to society and social history.

This was an enlightening and delightful book and one I will be coming back to again and again just to tick off all the novels I still need to read. I also must look up Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder, another guide to detective fiction, which James refers to a lot in this book as well as her new book Death Comes to Pemberley. Now, I wonder how that will turn out.

I read this as part of the R.I.P. VI Challenge.

I’ve been a huge fan of Virginia Nicholson’s since reading Singled Out a few years ago and have been meaning to finish reading Among the Bohemians which I was enjoying too until I got side-tracked. However, I was lucky enough to bag a proof of Millions Like Us: Women’s Lives in the Second World War, Nicholson’s newest book and social history of women at the homefront during WWII, and I began reading it in preparation for her talk at the Soho Literary Festival a few weekends ago. And what a wonderful talk it was, interspersed with music from that period, and the wonderful Carmen Callil, founder of Virago Press, asking some pretty forthright questions. I was expecting a cosy chat but the discussion delved into some rather dark places, unsurprising when you consider the topic was war and its consequences. Yet somehow you think that it’ll be softer because it’s about women. I never seem to learn because I should really know by now that it’s never soft and easy when the subject is about women and their place in society.

Singled Out
was about WWI and surplus women, many unhappy that their lives would never follow the paths they had envisaged before the Great War but also an opportunity for others who were able to shake off the shackles of traditional marriage and society and embark upon a life far from conformity. Millions Like Us is about the women left behind during WWII who not only had to hold their families together, but also take up the jobs traditionally done by men as the armies gobbled them up. It’s also a chronicle of the sudden loosening of class structure and ambition as young women signed up to do something for their country as normal life ceased. Although money, food and material things became scarce, other freedoms emerged, as young women left home to take up jobs, earn money they were never able to before and embark upon relationships and discover sex. Six years of war, hardship, loss, love and experience and finally, when they thought that peace had been won and all was over, that they could return to normal life again, things were no longer the same. Even though many returned to being mothers, wives and dutiful daughters, something had irrevocably changed within many of the women.

The most profound thing I came away with after finishing Millions Like Us was the sense of dissatisfaction many women felt after the war ended. Their sense of self worth and resilience was brushed aside as the returning husbands, fathers and boyfriends resumed their control over their womenfolk. It hit hard how controlled women’s lives were and actually how difficult it was mentally to break the chains that bound them to their social station. The women had learnt that they were capable of working as hard as men and that they were good at their jobs. But what was lauded during war-time was no longer the case afterwards. It was rather sad to read about this. But you could also see how exhausted these women were, how they wanted life to return to normal and how they couldn’t fight against the established social hierarchy. And how could you with babies and domestic chores and your jobs being given back to the men?

Nicholson weaves the stories of about 50 women including that of her mother throughout her book. The stories are funny, sweet, sad and bitter and cover a spectrum of social strata. The little feuds between the different social classes, the love affairs, the tough jobs and the snatches of fun. If it were only these stories during the war, the book may have quickly lost its appeal, but Nicholson cleverly discusses what happened after the war, especially for those women who went on to work in Germany, helping with the rebuilding and organising including the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. One of the more heartrending stories is of the plight of the women in Berlin, the rapes of thousands of German women by the Red Army and how many of the British women working in this climate never recovered from what they witnessed. It’s heartbreaking and, although this is a topic that could not be addressed in depth here, it’s a starting point for those who may be interested to know more about this dark period in history and I believe it is something that needs to be known rather than swept under the carpet as discussions of rape often are. I have to confess I knew almost nothing about this dark episode even though I did study WWII history at school but I recently found a copy of A Woman in Berlin published anonymously, but widely believed to be by journalist Marta Hiller about her experience in this particular period, which I will be reading shortly.

Millions Like Us is not the definitive book on the subject, but it’s a good start as it’s certainly a topic that is complex, multi-faceted and needs to be discussed. And it reaches deep into the differences between men and women and why there seems to be a necessity for keeping women under control. In some ways it is frightening to read about the hostility with which women are regarded if they step outside what is considered acceptable. I’m lucky to be able to live my life in the way I want without anyone controlling me. It just hits home how privileged I am.

And do check out Nymeth’s wonderful post as well.

A big thank you to Penguin Books for kindly sending me a copy of this book to review.

Subtitled Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, Brian Greene’s popular introduction to the latest contender for the Theory of Everything (TOE) goes hand in hand with a tv programme he made a few years ago. I watched that and was dazzled and had been meaning to find out more about superstrings since then but never got around to it. Superstring theory was too advanced for undergraduate lectures when I was at university since we were still trying to grasp the intricacies of relativity and quantum mechanics, but I was still shocked to learn that although superstring theory is the new theory on the block, it’s been around since the 70s.

Even with a scientific background, The Elegant Universe is not the easiest book to read even though equations are kept to a minimum and it’s mainly descriptive. But the concepts Greene tries to explain visually are not visualisable. Although we try to visualise the wave particle duality of a photon, for example, in fact, what we try to do is to visualise it in terms of what we are familiar with. But quantum mechanics is a different animal and cannot be visualised or thought of in that way. I’m familiar with the issues but I still do it. And in some ways you learn that it’s ok to do so as long as you remember that it’s not really like that. Are you still with me?

I have to admit this book took me a long time to finish partly because I could only absorb about 50 pages at a time because, although Greene writes beautifully and his illustrations are simple and easy to understand, the concepts have a depth to which I am no longer accustomed to thinking. That’s what happens when you stop studying like a student.

But The Elegant Universe opens up a world that is fantastic and bonkers. Our universe and everything in it is composed of tiny one dimensional strings that vibrate and exist in a 10 (or 11) dimensional universe all folded in to each other in varying shapes called the Calabi-Yau manifolds. We only know the approximate nature of superstring theory, although there are 5 versions that differ slightly. Together with supergravity, these 5 different versions of superstring theory make up what is called M-theory which theoretical physicists are hoping will be the Theory of Everything. Yet it’s so complex that we only know the approximate equations. And this in turn may lead us to speculate upon multiverses and pre-Big Bang scenarios. How exciting and mind-boggling is that? I didn’t even know we were allowed to speculate upon what happened or existed before the Big Bang as I thought it was a scientifically taboo topic.

I really enjoyed reading this book. Greene’s explanations are lucid, yet accessible, as he keeps the chapters short and manageable. And I’m eager to read more about the advances in superstring theory, especially since this book was first published in 1999 and revised in 2005. But I’d also like to learn more about dark matter and dark energy which account for 95% of our observable universe and which no one has a clue about. Intriguing or what?? The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality by Richard Panek sounds just like what I need to read next.

Do also check out Swapna’s review of the book.

And Prof. Greene also makes a cameo appearance in The Big Bang Theory season 4 episode 20 – The Herb Garden Germination. Total geek out.

I was very excited to learn that August’s choice for my book group, The Riverside Readers, was The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. I’d seen lots of glowing reviews of this book and it was the winner of the 2010 Costa Biography Award. But I didn’t actually realise that there was a Japanese element to this story about de Waal’s family traced through the journey of his great-great uncle Charles’ collection of 264 netsukes through time and place.

I didn’t really know what to expect, maybe a history of netsuke, a family memoir, but it exceeded all my expectations because it went right to the core of recent European and Japanese history, taking in fin de siècle Paris and Vienna, the two World Wars, the Holocaust, post-war Japan under the American Occupation and finally back to Odessa, where de Waal’s family first rose to prominence. So much happened in just over the 100 years since Charles Ephrussi began his collection; fortunes grew on wheat fields and were lost in war, the family spread out into Vienna and Paris and were then scattered as the Nazis gained power, finally settling in Tunbridge Wells with only de Waal’s great Uncle Iggy settling in Japan with the netsukes.

The Hare with Amber Eyes isn’t just a family memoir, it is also a history of Jewish migration. What struck me forcefully was how on the one hand, the Ephrussis, rivals to the Rothschilds, were celebrated persons who mingled with the aristocracy and the cream of the art world and yet they were skimming the surface of anti-Semitism which was persistently threatening to explode. This isn’t anything that is new to me, I studied history at school, read books, watched films, seen the reels of hollow-cheeked survivors. And yet, it was pretty painful reading. It didn’t help that I watched The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas (a beautiful and tragic film) on telly as I was finishing this book, but I can only imagine the pain and sadness with which de Waal must have sifted through his family archives.

One of the amazing things is how it shows the sweep of history. How everything can be won and lost at a stroke of fate. And how people are trying to run away from what is set for them, make mistakes, and yet somehow survive. De Waal’s writing is engaging and this was a relatively easy book to read (a bit like watching Who Do You Think You Are which I love). What I wasn’t expecting was how emotional this book made me feel. This isn’t a dry and academic history book or a memoir with lists of names. It’s one man’s journey to find out where he comes from. And I really liked how he tied this with the cultural fashions and objects that meant so much to his family.

We see instances of Charles Ephrussi’s friendships with writers and artists in Paris such as Proust (who was Charles’ secretary!), Degas and Renoir (who painted Charles in his Luncheon of the Boating Party!). How the scandalous and troubling Dreyfus Affair that divided France affected these friendships because of the Ephrussi’s Jewish connections. How their Viennese cousins, Victor Ephrussi and his family, dealt with the post-WWI recession, the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire and the rise of Hitler. How de Waal’s grandmother, Elizabeth, Victor’s daughter, tried to break free from convention and entered university and how after the war she strived to locate her family and possessions, many of which were never returned by the Austrian government. I was surprised at how angry I felt at the injustice of what befell the Jewish people and the powerlessness with which they had to rebuild their lives. And I am glad that de Waal wrote this book with love, passion and sadness for his children.

Do also check out Kim’s review of the book too.