The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer

After making such good progress with my 20 Books of Summer list in June and July, I seem to have slowed down a lot in August. Some of the books on my list have turned out to be a lot longer than I expected, including this one, which has almost 600 pages in the new UK paperback edition published today. I really enjoyed Julie Orringer’s 2011 novel The Invisible Bridge, about a Hungarian-Jewish student who leaves Budapest to study architecture in Paris during World War II, so I was looking forward to reading The Flight Portfolio – but I have to say, it really did feel like a 600 page book and I think it could easily have been a lot shorter!

The plot is quite a fascinating one, set in the same period as The Invisible Bridge, but this time based on the true story of a real historical figure: Varian Fry, an American journalist who helped thousands of Jewish refugees to escape from Occupied France. I knew nothing about Fry before starting this book, so it was interesting to read about the rescue network he created in Marseille – part of the Emergency Rescue Committee – where he and a group of other volunteers had an intricate system in place to provide people with fake documents and then to smuggle them across the border into Spain and from there to America.

However, the people Fry and the ERC rescue are not just anyone – they are what Fry describes as ‘the intellectual treasure of Europe’, famous artists, writers and philosophers, chosen based on their talent. This bothered me from the beginning – while I can understand the desire to save the life of someone who could potentially go on to provide pleasure and inspiration for millions of others, surely the lives of people without those particular talents have just as much value – so I was pleased that the characters do eventually begin to question and discuss the moral issues their work raises. It was also nice to come across Heinrich and Golo Mann as two of the refugees being rescued (Thomas Mann’s brother and son, who appeared in another of my recent reads, The Magician by Colm Tóibín). I love finding connections like that between books I’ve read and it was interesting to see Heinrich and Golo from the perspective of the person coordinating their escape, rather than just hearing about their adventures after they’d already reached safety, as we did in The Magician.

I felt that this book was much less exciting than it could have been, though. I never really got a true sense of the danger these people were in, which was disappointing as I’d expected a thrilling, suspenseful story. Maybe this is because the book concentrates mainly on the administrative side of the rescue scheme – obtaining visas, offering bribes, dealing with the US Consul and the Marseille police – or maybe there were just too many different writers, artists and intellectuals appearing in the story, making it difficult for me to become emotionally invested in any of them. A bigger problem for me was the amount of time Orringer devotes to a fictional romance between Fry and an old friend from Harvard, Elliot Grant. There seems to be some controversy over whether or not the real Varian Fry had homosexual relationships (we do know that he was married to Eileen Hughes, editor of Atlantic Monthly); however, although I don’t mind the author inventing a love story for Varian, it did seem that it became the main focus of the story for large sections of the book and the important work he was doing with the ERC was pushed into the background.

The Flight Portfolio wasn’t quite what I’d hoped it would be, but it was good to learn a little bit about Varian Fry and as I did love The Invisible Bridge, I would be happy to read more Julie Orringer books in the future.

Thanks to Little, Brown Group UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 11/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 41/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Magician by Colm Tóibín

The Magician is probably a book I would never have chosen to read if it hadn’t appeared on first the longlist then the shortlist for this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. I’ve read and enjoyed other books by Colm Tóibín: Brooklyn, about a young Irish immigrant in 1950s New York and House of Names, a retelling of the Oresteia. This one, though, a fictional biography of the author Thomas Mann, sounded less appealing to me, particularly as I’ve read very little of Mann’s work (only Death in Venice and Other Stories) and wasn’t sure if I was really interested in reading about his life. There was only one way to find out…

The Magician begins with Thomas Mann’s childhood in the German city of Lübeck towards the end of the 19th century, then takes us through his entire adult life as he marries, has children, becomes a successful author and leaves Germany for first Switzerland and then the US, where the family will live for several years. The childhood chapters help us to see what shapes Thomas into the man he will later become. His father dies in 1891, leaving Thomas and his siblings with their mother, a Brazilian woman who doesn’t quite conform to the expectations of their quiet, staid community in Lübeck, so they move to Munich where Thomas meets and marries Katia Pringsheim, the daughter of a Jewish mathematician.

A lot of time is devoted to Mann’s relationship with Katia and the six children they have together, but also to his sexual desires for young men, something Katia must have been aware of but seems to have ignored. Some of Mann’s repressed feelings for these men find their way into his writing, such as in Death in Venice where the middle-aged von Aschenbach becomes infatuated with the beautiful young Tadzio. Katia herself also inspires her husband’s work; her stay in a Swiss sanatorium after becoming ill in 1911 forms the basis of The Magic Mountain, a book I haven’t read. No knowledge of Mann’s work is required, but when I came across references like that, I did feel that if I’d been more familiar with his books it would have added something extra to the experience of reading The Magician.

The novel also explores Mann’s relationship with his older brother, Heinrich, another writer, and later in the book, the focus switches more and more to Thomas and Katia’s children, giving us a glimpse of what Thomas was like as a father – but only a glimpse, because Thomas remains a remote and distant figure throughout the novel. I felt that he never fully came to life and although I did learn a lot about him, there was no warmth and I wasn’t able to connect with him on an emotional level. I think a non-fiction book on Mann would probably have worked better for me.

However, as well as telling the story of Thomas Mann’s life, Tóibín also tells the story of the first half of the 20th century; not much time is spent on World War I, but I did find it interesting to see World War II unfold from the perspective of the Manns, a family who leave Germany for their own safety and become part of the German émigré community in Los Angeles. Although it takes Thomas a while to come to terms with what is happening in his home country, once he does he becomes a public critic of the Nazi regime. He also worries about the future of his own books and the loss of the freedom to write material that everybody is able to read:

He contemplated the idea that someday in the near future his books would be withdrawn in Germany, and it frightened him. He thought back to Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain, the books for which he was most famous, and realized that they would have been paler books, less confident, less intense, had he known when he was writing them that no German would be permitted to read them.

The Magician is a book that I admired, but not one that I loved. I’ll continue to read other books by Tóibín, but I think I prefer the way he writes about fictional characters rather than real ones.

This is book 40/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

The Chrysalids is the book that was chosen for me in the recent Classics Club Spin. The deadline for posting our Spin book reviews was supposed to be yesterday, but I got confused with the dates and am a day late! Anyway, after enjoying all of the books I’ve previously read by John Wyndham – The Midwich Cuckoos, Chocky and The Day of the Triffids – I had high hopes for this one and wasn’t disappointed. It’s another fascinating, exciting and thought-provoking novel – although not quite what I’d been expecting.

I deliberately tried not to read too much about this book before I started it, so I assumed the Chrysalids must be some sort of monstrous alien beings similar to the Triffids. However, this is not really that kind of book at all; it’s a post-apocalyptic novel exploring the changes in society brought about by an unspecified (though presumably nuclear) disaster known as the ‘Tribulation’. There are no monsters, although some of the characters view their fellow humans that way.

Our narrator, David Strorm, was born many years after the Tribulation in rural Labrador, a part of the world where normal life has resumed to some extent, although the ‘Old People’ have been almost forgotten and their technological advances have been lost in the mists of time. The people of Labrador are living an almost medieval existence, ruled by religious zealots who believe that as God created humans in his image, all human life should conform to a set of strict specifications. Anyone who is found to deviate from this in any way is considered a blasphemy and exiled to the Fringes, a wild and lawless region to the south. Unfortunately, as a result of the nuclear apocalypse, mutations have become very common.

David is still a child when his best friend Sophie is banished to the Fringes after her shoe comes off, revealing a sixth toe. Having witnessed Sophie’s fate, David becomes aware of the importance of keeping his own mutation – the power of telepathy – a secret. A mental abnormality should be easier to hide than a physical one, but the very fact that he and his telepathic friends look just like everyone else makes them a bigger threat to the religious leaders who are determined to identify and drive out every blasphemy. Can David and the others continue to keep their special ability hidden – and what will happen if they get caught?

What makes The Chrysalids so interesting is that although it was published in 1955 and set in some distant point in the future, the themes and ideas it explores are still very relevant to our lives today. Intolerance, bigotry and prejudice have sadly not gone away and there is still a tendency for some groups to judge others for not being ‘people like us’. The Chrysalids raises the interesting question of what being normal actually means and why any of us should have the right to decide whether another person is normal or not. Later in the novel another community is introduced who also consider their own way of life to be superior and to them it’s the religious fundamentalists of Labrador who are seen as primitive and savage.

Like the other Wyndham novels I’ve read, the science fiction elements in this one are really quite understated; the main focus is on the changes in society and in daily life caused by an apocalyptic or paranormal incident. I think this is why I enjoy reading Wyndham so much even though I don’t consider myself a big fan of science fiction in general. However, although I loved most of this book and found it quite gripping, I felt that the message became a bit unclear towards the end, possibly intentionally, with the introduction of that other community (it’s difficult to discuss it properly here while trying to avoid spoilers). Still, I was left with a lot to think about, which is always a good thing, and I wished there had been a sequel, or at least a few more chapters, as it seemed there was a lot more to learn about this world and our characters’ place in it. If you’ve read this book I would love to hear your thoughts!

This is book 31/50 from my second Classics Club list.

Six Degrees of Separation: From The Book of Form and Emptiness to Elizabeth and Her German Garden

It’s the first Saturday of the month which means it’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is that Kate chooses a book to use as a starting point and then we have to link it to six other books of our choice to form a chain. A book doesn’t have to be connected to all of the others on the list – only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we’re starting with the winner of the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction, The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki. I haven’t read it, but here’s what it’s about:

One year after the death of his beloved musician father, thirteen-year-old Benny Oh begins to hear voices. The voices belong to the things in his house – a sneaker, a broken Christmas ornament, a piece of wilted lettuce. Although Benny doesn’t understand what these things are saying, he can sense their emotional tone; some are pleasant, a gentle hum or coo, but others are snide, angry and full of pain. When his mother develops a hoarding problem, the voices grow more clamorous.

At first Benny tries to ignore them, but soon the voices follow him outside the house, onto the street and at school, driving him at last to seek refuge in the silence of a large public library, where objects are well-behaved and know to speak in whispers. There, he falls in love with a mesmerising street artist with a smug pet ferret, who uses the library as her performance space. He meets a homeless philosopher-poet, who encourages him to ask important questions and find his own voice amongst the many. And he meets his very own Book – a talking thing – who narrates Benny’s life and teaches him to listen to the things that truly matter.

~

I struggled to find a way to get started with this month’s chain, so I’m afraid I’ve had to take the easy way out again and use shared words in titles for my first link. Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson (1) is another novel with the word ‘Book’ in the title. It was the first I read by Stevenson and although it’s not a favourite, I did find it entertaining: Barbara Buncle decides to write a book, drawing on her friends and neighbours for inspiration – but not all of them are happy when they discover what she has done!

I sent a copy of Miss Buncle’s Book to another blogger as part of a Persephone Secret Santa back in 2010. Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson (2) was the book published by Persephone that I received from my Secret Santa in return. I was very grateful to the blogger who chose it for me because I loved it! It tells the story of the Scrimgeour family, beginning in the Victorian period and ending in the 1930s. The Scrimgeours, once very wealthy, have fallen on hard times and the novel describes the attempts of several of the daughters to find work in a world where their gender and class means their options are limited.

Next, I’m linking to another book by an author with the name Rachel: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (3). This is a lovely novel about a man who sets out to walk five hundred miles from Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed to visit an old friend who has been diagnosed with cancer. He hopes that his walk will somehow help her to stay alive. I never read the sequel, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy and now there’s a third book on its way – Maureen Fry and the Angel of the North. I think I’ve got some catching up to do!

A different sort of pilgrimage takes place in Requiem for a Knave by Laura Carlin (4). Set in the 14th century, our narrator, Alwin of Whittaker, travels to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in search of clues to his father’s identity. Along the way he is joined by a small group of other pilgrims who help him to uncover the truth about his past. This was an interesting novel but was spoiled for me by some very heavy-handed messaging regarding feminism and the abuse of women by men which would have been far more effective if it had been more subtle.

Walsingham is the name of a place in North Norfolk, but it can also be a surname. Probably the most famous historical figure to have that surname is Francis Walsingham, secretary and ‘spymaster’ to Elizabeth I. He has appeared in several novels I’ve read, including Elizabeth I by Margaret George (5), a fictional account of the final years of Elizabeth’s reign – the period between the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and her death in 1603. Although I had some problems with the length and pace of the book, I found it an interesting, if slightly dry, portrayal of the older Elizabeth. I’ve only read this book and The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George, but I do have a few of her others on the TBR.

My final link is to a book about a very different Elizabeth. In Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim (6), our narrator describes a year in her life and the changes she sees in the garden of her home in northern Germany as the seasons go by. First published in 1898 and written in the form of a diary, this is a charming and often funny read. I still need to read the sequel, The Solitary Summer.

~

And that’s my chain for August! My links have included the word ‘book’, Persephones, authors called Rachel, pilgrimages, Walsingham and the name Elizabeth.

In September, we’ll be starting with the book that finished this month’s chain.

The Night Ship by Jess Kidd

Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars was one of my books of the year in 2019. I don’t think her new novel, The Night Ship, will achieve the same honour this year, but it’s still a book that I enjoyed very much. It takes as its starting point a real historical event – a 17th century shipwreck – and uses it to tell the stories of two children whose lives are separated by more than three hundred years.

In 1629, a nine-year-old Dutch girl, Mayken, is sailing to the Dutch East Indies aboard the Batavia, accompanied by her nursemaid. It’s a long journey and Mayken occupies herself by exploring the ship and getting to know some of the passengers and crew. When one of her new friends tells her about the legendary eel-like monster known as Bullebak, Mayken becomes convinced that Bullebak is the cause of everything bad that is happening aboard the ship and she sets out to capture the monster in a jug.

In 1989, nine-year-old Gil arrives on an island off the west coast of Australia to live with his grandfather following the death of his mother. Gil is a lonely child who has never fit in and he struggles to settle into his new life on the island. He finds some comfort in playing with his best friend, the tortoise Enkidu, and in watching the work of the scientists who have come to the island to investigate the wreck of the Batavia.

The stories of Gil and Mayken alternate throughout the novel so that we spend about the same amount of time with each of them. It soon becomes clear that although the two children are leading very different lives, there are also some parallels between them. Not only will Mayken’s ship be wrecked on Gil’s island, both children have recently lost their mother and are trying to come to terms with this. They are also both drawn to the tales of monsters who appear in their national folklore – for Mayken, it’s Bullebak, and for Gil, the Bunyip. However, I had expected the two storylines to tie together more closely at the end and was slightly disappointed that this didn’t really happen.

I knew nothing about the fate of the people on board the Batavia before I read this book and if you’re not familiar with it either I recommend not looking it up until you’ve finished. It wasn’t actually the shipwreck story that interested me the most, though – I found that I was drawn much more to Gil than to Mayken, despite Mayken’s storyline being more dramatic. Poor Gil has such a difficult time and parts of his story are heartbreaking. I should probably point out here that although both protagonists are young children, this is not a children’s book and is quite harrowing even for an adult to read! I must go back and read Jess Kidd’s earlier novels now; I meant to do that after finishing Things in Jars and never did.

Thanks to Canongate for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 39/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Celebrating 10 years of The Classics Club!

It’s The Classic Club Blog’s 10th birthday – or it was earlier this week – and to celebrate they have put together a questionnaire for members to answer. I love being part of the club (you can find out more about it and see my current list of classic reads here), so I was happy to attempt to answer the questions. There are ten, but I’ve chosen to focus on seven of them.

1. When did you join the Classics Club?

My post announcing that I was joining the Classics Club appeared in March 2012. This confused me because obviously that would have meant the 10th birthday was in March of this year…then I remembered that the club was originally hosted on the personal blog of the founding member, Jillian. Obviously we are celebrating the birthday of the Classics Club Blog this month, rather than the beginning of the club itself!

It’s interesting looking back at the list of planned reads I posted when I joined the club. There were 50 books on the list (which I later expanded to 100), and quite a few (10 in fact) that I never actually read but replaced with other titles. I’ve now moved onto a second list of 50 books but still haven’t included any of those unread books on it. Maybe one day!

2. What is the best classic book you’ve read for the club so far? Why?

There are many great books I’ve read for the Classics Club – too many to name them all here – but my favourite is one that was actually a re-read for me: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. I can’t describe how much I love this book in just a few words, so will direct you to my review if you want to know more. Despite the length (over 1000 pages), it’s such an exciting story that every time I read it I wish it would never end – and Edmond Dantès is one of my favourite characters in all of literature!

3. What is the first classic you ever read?

This is a difficult question for me to answer because I honestly can’t remember! As a child, I read a lot of children’s classics: The Secret Garden, The Hobbit, Black Beauty, the Narnia books, The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down, and many others. I also had a lovely illustrated edition of A Christmas Carol. I think Wuthering Heights was probably my first ‘adult’ classic, followed by things like To Kill a Mockingbird and Pride and Prejudice.

4. What is the most challenging one you’ve ever read, or tried to read?

That’s another difficult one to answer because books can be challenging in different ways. I’m going to highlight one that I did manage to finish, but struggled with at times – Samuel Richardson’s 1500+ page novel, Clarissa. It wasn’t necessarily the length of the book that bothered me (The Count of Monte Cristo is almost as long) and I didn’t really have a problem with the 18th century writing style either. The thing that made it challenging for me was the pace and the repetitiveness – the way hundreds of pages could go by without the plot moving forward at all. It took me a whole year to read it, first as part of a group read then on my own after I abandoned the group schedule, but when I reached the end I felt a real sense of accomplishment.

5. Favourite movie adaptation of a classic? Least favourite?

This is an easier question to answer! My favourite would have to be the 1940 adaptation of Rebecca with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. I love the du Maurier novel it’s based on and it’s one of the few examples I can think of where the film is as good as the book. I would find it hard to single out a least favourite, but I tend not to like adaptations that diverge too much from the original novel (assuming that I’ve read the book first, that is). It annoys me when whole chunks of plot are left out or the ending has been completely changed or a character I loved in the book doesn’t appear at all in the film.

6. Has there been a classic title you expected to dislike and ended up loving? Respecting? Appreciating?

Yes, lots! I have often been – and continue to be – surprised by classics! For example, I’ve never considered myself to be much of a science fiction fan, but gave John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos a try back in 2013 and loved it. I’ve since enjoyed two of his other books and am currently reading another, The Chrysalids. I didn’t expect to like John Steinbeck or W Somerset Maugham either, but ended up loving East of Eden and The Painted Veil, respectively.

7. Classic/s you are DEFINITELY GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year?

My answer to that is everything on my current Classics Club list that I don’t manage to read this year! I had set myself a target of finishing the list by this November, but with twenty out of the fifty books still to read I don’t think that’s at all likely.

~

Are you a member of The Classics Club? If so, have you completed this questionnaire? I would love to read your answers.

The Bewitching by Jill Dawson

I seem to have read quite a few historical novels about witch trials over the last few years – The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown, The Familiars by Stacey Halls and Widdershins by Helen Steadman, to name just three. Jill Dawson’s latest novel, The Bewitching, is another and it tells the story of the Witches of Warboys. I had never read anything about this particular case until now, yet it’s apparently one of the best-known of the 16th century witch trials and is thought to have strongly influenced the Witchcraft Act of 1604. In her author’s note, Jill Dawson states that many of the details described in the novel appeared in a pamphlet published at the time, although she has shortened the time frame and invented some of the characters and incidents.

Most of the novel is narrated by Martha, a servant in the household of the Throckmortons, a wealthy family who live in the village of Warboys in Cambridgeshire. Abandoned at birth by her mother and raised by a nun, Martha has been in the service of the Throckmortons for many years now and has watched her master, Robert Throckmorton, rise in the world to his current position of Squire of Warboys Manor. When, one by one, the squire’s five young daughters begin to suffer from sudden attacks of shaking and twitching, Martha is as distressed as if they were her own children. No one knows what is causing these fits, but one daughter after another accuses a neighbour, Alice Samuel, of bewitching them.

To the reader, it seems obvious from the beginning that Alice is innocent – and Martha also feels uneasy about the girls’ accusations, but knows that as a servant her opinion is unlikely to be wanted or welcomed. Although it’s clear that Alice is not a witch, what is less clear is why five previously healthy children should all suddenly be struck with the same affliction and why they should all choose to blame a woman who has done nothing to harm them. There’s a sense of mystery running throughout the whole novel which I found quite unsettling, because even if nobody has actually been ‘bewitched’, there’s definitely something sinister going on at Warboys Manor.

We don’t see very much of Alice’s point of view until later in the book, when she is forced to stand trial at Huntingdon Assizes in 1593 and her daughter, Nessie, and husband, John, also find themselves accused. By this time three ‘scholars of divinity’ have arrived from Cambridge University armed with a handbook on witch-hunting, the Malleus Maleficarum, and further accusations against the Samuels have been made by the powerful Cromwell family. In this atmosphere of superstition, misogyny and fear, poor Alice doesn’t stand a chance.

I found The Bewitching very slow at first, but it became more absorbing later on – and there were even one or two twists, which hadn’t occurred to me but probably should have done! The time period is beautifully evoked, with the language carefully chosen to suit the era and sometimes taken straight from the historical accounts (Alice wears a ‘black thrumbed cap’ and the girls don’t just ‘have fits’ – they are always described as being ‘in their fits’). It’s an eerie and unusual novel and although it didn’t always succeed in holding my attention, I enjoyed it overall. I’ll have to look for Jill Dawson’s earlier books now; she’s written so many and I don’t know how I’ve never come across any of them before!

Thanks to Sceptre for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 38/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.