33. ‘Rubicon’ by Tom Holland, a guest review by Tom Gray.

It is a tired old trope, perhaps because of its enduring truth; history repeats itself. And drawing parallels between the late years of the Roman Republic and the modern United States is almost irresistible to anyone with an understanding of the period; the rise of populist demagogues, the increasing influence of a powerful military-complex, and the steady erosion of democratic ideals are all forces which precipitated the fall of the what at the time was the world’s greatest nation and democracy, and you don’t have to look hard for such trends in the political and cultural machinations of the current western superpower, the USA.

Understanding this history then, could be considered vital if we are to avoid repeating it. But condensing such a volatile, fractious history into an accessible and even enjoyable read is a task verging on the impossible. In Rubicon, Tom Holland does this spectacularly, by articulating centuries of history into a thoroughly entertaining read, and in doing so succeeds where many have failed before him.

As the name suggests, Rubicon begins with one of history’s most familiar scenes; Julius Caesars’ pause on the banks of the Rubicon, as he wrestled with a decision which would have vast and far reaching implications for him, his troops, and for the entire western political trajectory for the millennia to come; to march his troops on Rome and secure his political future.

Many adaptations of this moment and the events which followed, from Shakespeare to HBO, have centred on Julius Caesar, his march on Rome, and the civil wars that followed and eventually culminated in the death of the republic. But Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon did not happen in a vacuum; it was the culmination of almost a century of democratic decay, a period which is almost criminally neglected in popular history, a neglect which Rubicon addresses. The Italian wars of independence, the great rivalry between Sulla and Marius, Pompey’s conquest of the east and the Mithridatic Wars are just some of the fascinating events preceding Caesar, events which rarely get a mention in popular culture and adaptations (Colleen McCullough’s epic 7-volume Masters of Rome is a notable exception, and a must-read for Roman history buffs). This crime of omission is made doubly so by the fact that barely any other period or place in antiquity is so well documented.

Not so with Rubicon. Rubicon takes the reader back to the 2nd and 1st century Roman Republic, which had existed and prospered for centuries, and whose democratic, diplomatic and military institutions still shape the modern world. He explores the myriad pressures that gradually moulded the Roman psyche, which had for centuries abhorred the very notion of autocratic rule, and steered it towards dictatorship. He explores the demands of Italian nations’ for citizenship, and the civil conflicts that followed (and which would define Roman politics for decades to come).

The subtitle of this book is apt – the triumph and tragedy of the Roman republic – and indeed it is littered with both. The tragedies of Crassus in the deserts of Syria and Cato’s brutal suicide in North Africa, and the triumphs of Rome and her domination of the Mediterranean are explored in equal measure, as Tom Holland humanizes the countless fascinating characters who defined this period, from the populist demagogue Clodius to the patrician heavyweights Marius and Sulla, and the rivalries, hopes and dreams of ordinary men which shaped these events.

Perhaps the only criticism I can make of the book is that it ends so soon; leaving the periods that followed to other historians, many of whom sadly lack Mr Holland’s eloquence. Still, we can hardly blame him for that.

26. ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khaled Hosseini.

What a wonderful follow up to The Kite Runner, but this time this story of Afghanistan is told through its women. Mum and I both loved this when it was first published in 2007, and her copy is dated January 2008. I have enjoyed re reading it more than I can express; although I again found it very disturbing in its depiction of the brutality of the regime and of the men, especially the particularly nasty and unpleasant Rasheed, husband to the two women who tell the story.

We begin with Mariam’s childhood on the outskirts of Herat, the plain, illegitimate only daughter of her bullying, epileptic mother. She lives for the visits her charming but insincere father makes, and for her lessons with the local mullah, a kindly man. Her bitter and resentful mother does her best to erode any hope Mariam might have for her future by continually reminding her that as a female and illegitimate to boot, she basically has nothing to hope for, with comments such as, ‘like a compass needle that points north, a mans accusing finger always finds a woman’, but the young Mariam still dreams of a day when she may live with her fathers other children and go to his cinema.

Everything unravels and Mariam realises the truth behind her mothers bitter words when she runs away to Herat to see her father, is shunned by him, and returns home to find her mother has hung herself. Forced to take her in, her father and his wives quickly marry her off to the revolting Rasheed, thirty years older than her, a widowed shoemaker from Kabul with rotting teeth who immediately makes fifteen year old Mariam wear a burqa, and when she fails to provide him with a child, treats her with contempt and brutality.

This continues through fifteen years of Afghan history, during which the Russians leave, the mujaheddin take over, a bloody struggle ensues between tribes, and the Taliban assume control…and that is really a massive precis, Mr Hossain paints an illuminating picture of the tumultuous political backdrop to the lives of his characters.

Laila is the beautiful, wilful and educated daughter of an intellectual father and an unbalanced mother; her brothers die fighting the Russians, her boyfriend loses a leg to a landmine, and at fourteen, she finds herself orphaned by a rocket strike on her home. Worse, she is pregnant by her boyfriend, Tariq, who has fled to Pakistan with his family, and, convinced he is dead, she becomes Rasheed’s second wife, passing off the baby as his.

Initially at odds with one another, after baby Aziza is born Mariam and Laila develop a deep, mutually supportive relationship, allied by their fear of their husband and the daily struggle to survive in an increasingly terrifying Kabul. Mariam’s mothers words haunt her as one man after another points an accusing finger at them, and the frightening reality of life under the Taliban is brought home when Laila has her second child by C section with no anaesthetic.

The story is, as with the Kite Runner, a tale of a deep relationship against the backdrop  of the turmoil that has characterised the recent history of Afghanistan. It tells of the resources these women find to enable them to survive the terrifying realities of their lives. It reminds us how lucky we are to live in the West, the freedoms we take for granted. And, as you may not yet have read it, I am saying nothing about the ending!

As always, now I have read it again I am gifting Mum’s copy forward, and if you would like to add this marvellous novel to your own bookshelf, please get in touch either here or on the facebook page @mumsbooks and I will be delighted to send it to you. Here is a link to it on Amazon if its gone and you feel the need to purchase it!

//ws-eu.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=GB&source=ac&ref=tf_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=mumsbooks-21&marketplace=amazon&region=GB&placement=074758589X&asins=074758589X&linkId=bfa98966be47db678617255295984233&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=false&price_color=333333&title_color=0066c0&bg_color=ffffff

 

24. ‘Diary of an Ordinary Woman’ by Margaret Forster.

A marvellous read, and a very interesting concept – this novel was conceived by Margaret Forster after she was contacted regarding nearly a century’s worth of diaries kept by no-one famous or notable, just an ordinary woman of 98 who had lived through the turbulent twentieth century. In fact, the lady in question remains as anonymous as she ever was, because the proposition to ‘make something’ of the diaries was retracted. However, the seed had been sown, and as a result we have this magnificent book, a fictionalised memoir of Millicent King. What a read! and from an author deeply interested and engaged in chronicling the lives, the thoughts, the feelings of women, it is a winner on every level. Mum gave me the book years ago, I loved it then, and I found her copy deep in one of the bookshelves that are groaning with her library last week, did a little happy dance and then devoured it in a four hour sitting, moving only once or twice for a fresh cup of tea. The Mr had to go and buy fish and chips for his supper. Magnificent.

We meet Millicent in 1914 when she is a precocious and opinionated thirteen, and from the start she captures one’s attention – ‘her’ prose is dryly observational, at times extremely funny, and definitely captivating. She bemoans her fate, criticises her family and friends ruthlessly, and in short sounds exactly as one would expect a thirteen year old diarist to sound. Definitely very petulant and self centred. she records her disappointment at not being able to go to college, her resentment at having to take care of her younger siblings, her disgust that there are so many younger siblings – didn’t her parents have any self control? As she matures, the tone of ‘her’ writing changes as we would expect it to, and becomes more observational and less passionate.

However, the tale she is telling is against the backdrop of the two wars, the tensions in Europe between them, the horror of the Blitz, the civil rights movements, the Greenham Common women’s camp. Millicent is not a political creature, nor is she a romantic heroine. She is simply, as the title states, an ordinary woman doing the best she can with her ordinary life. And as in real life, there are great gaps where a terrible loss has left her silent.

It’s a wonderful read. Regardless of the fact that it is a work of fiction, it is nonetheless so plausible and so well written that Millicent comes alive on the pages as a believable representative of her generation, and of the ordinary people who make a nation what it is.

This one is not available to gift as usual I’m afraid; my eldest daughter arrived the day after I had finished it, listened to me raving about it, and nabbed it immediately, however, here’s a link to Amazon, or ask for it at your local library (goodness knows we need to be using our libraries or they’ll all close!). But seriously, read this. It’s amazing.

//ws-eu.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=GB&source=ac&ref=tf_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=mumsbooks-21&marketplace=amazon&region=GB&placement=B008S9YQKA&asins=B008S9YQKA&linkId=919aa5844ab272ef0532142ede0c53d3&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=false&price_color=333333&title_color=0066c0&bg_color=ffffff

 

 

 

20. ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Where and what is Biafra? Mention that name to anyone in my generation, and the image that springs to mind immediately is of starving children in refugee camps, victims of yet another African famine or war. Mention it to many young people now, and they will ask you where or what Biafra is, because it only existed for three brief, ruinous years as an independent African Republic, breaking away from Nigeria in 1967 and fighting a brutal war the Igbo nationalists were ill-equipped for and which descended into a war of starvation as the Nigerian forces closed the borders, and the rest of the world except for Tanzania refused to recognise it.

That then is the stark and horrific background of this exquisitely beautiful novel, which explores the lives, the loves, and the suffering of its characters in an incredibly sensitive, dignified, and deeply moving weaving of the narrative through time, beginning before the war in a period of peace and for some, plenty, after Nigeria declared independence from British colonial rule in 1960. (As a Brit, I hang my head in shame at much of our colonial history, and this is no exception. Malnutrition is referred to as ‘Harold Wilson disease’). First published in 2007, it bursts with vitality and richness, exuberant colours and scents, and I became entirely wrapped up in the characters, racing through the book much too fast really on this, my second reading of it.

Food, or the lack of it, is an ever present theme. We meet the first two central characters, Odenigbo, a radical professor, and his new houseboy, Ugwu, a village boy, forming a bond through the food Ugwu cooks, and the education Odenigbo, his house, and his visitors provide for Ugwu.

“Ugwu turned off the tap, turned it on again, then off. On and off and on and off until he was laughing at the magic of the running water and the chicken and bread that lay balmy in his stomach.”

Olanna and her twin sister, Kainene, are the daughters of a wealthy Lagos businessman; very different people, and a difficult relationship. After her father again tries to push her in the direction of one of his business contacts, Olanna leaves and moves in with her lover, Odenigbo, while Kainene develops a relationship with Richard, an Englishman who has been drawn to Nigeria by archaeological finds he wants to write about, stays because he falls in love and finds other things to write about. Including, eventually, writing about the war for foreign publications, because the Biafran leadership believe that the outside world, knowing the truth of what’s happening from a white man in Biafra, ‘cannot remain silent while we die’.

These then are our central characters. There is a jump in time, fast forwarding four years, during which something dreadful has happened that we do not learn about for a while, but which we know has had a huge impact on the characters. As the refugee crisis develops, the Nigerian blockade and the refusal of the rest of the world to do anything to help drives the newly born state and its citizens to starvation. We feel our characters grief and bewilderment, recognise and admire their resilience, wonder what has affected the relationship between the sisters in particular.

The language in this novel is lovely, with the cadences and rhythms of African language neatly juxtapositioning with English, and poignant highlighting of the ethnic differences which crucially affect the country; for example, Olanna’s ex-boyfriend is a Muslim Hausa prince from the North. It’s hard for me to say more without spoiling the end for you, but what I am going to say is, this is fantastic. If you have not already read it, you should. I know little of African history save from a British colonial perspective as I was taught in school, which I know is wrong in many ways – Odenigbo tells Ugwu that,

“they will teach you that a white man called Mungo Park discovered River Niger. That is rubbish. Our people fished in the Niger long before Mungo Park’s grandfather was born. But in your exam, write that it was Mungo Park.”

I’m going to embark on Nelson Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, a weighty tome but one I am looking forward to even more now, I need to know more about African history and politics from an African point of view after reading this.

And as always, if you would like Mum’s copy of Half a Yellow Sun, please get in touch with me and I will post it out to you at no cost, this is all about gifting Mum’s love of reading forward.

 

17. ‘Testament of Youth’ by Vera Brittain.

What a remarkable experience this book this has been. I readily confess, I found it quite hard to read, but have been unable to stop thinking about it ever since. It is by no means a light read, but one I wholeheartedly recommend, and it seems particularly relevant now in 2018, a hundred years since the Armistice that ended the horrors of the first World War. I have two copies to give away, Mum’s original copy from the Virago re-print in 1979, and a brand new copy Mum must have purchased very recently, probably seeing it in a bookshop, remembering how much it meant to her, and, unsure whether she had kept her original, buying another to be on the safe side. Mum was never afraid of a random book purchase, especially as if it did turn out to be a duplicate, one of us girls would happily take it. (Another thing Mum was much given to purchasing at random was a nice wall clock; I have several that she became tired of and gave to me!)

This, the first volume of Ms Brittain’s memoirs, (and to be absolutely frank, probably the only one I shall ever read), gives us an honest and harrowing narrative of her life before and particularly during the war, and, continuing into the 1920’s, addresses the massive personal and social upheavals that occurred after the wholesale slaughter of a generation of young men including her only brother, her fiance, and two of their closest friends. She does this from an empowered (for her times: the book was first published in 1933) and educated female perspective, however damaged she was by her experiences, and also as a committed pacifist. Detail is everything, and there are frequent references to and excerpts from the diaries she kept, letters, and poetry written by herself or her fiance, Roland. Incidentally, I found the BBC adaptation of the book on Netflix, and Roland is played by Kit Harington aka Jon Snow!

Born into a comfortable middle class family in 1893, she grew up in a world that seems so alien to us now, with its restrictions and rules for young ladies. Ms Brittain however is a bit of a rebel, (go Vera!). She rails against her parents belief that there is no point in a girl going to Oxford, and dreams of becoming a journalist and writer, not ‘coming out’ (which of course meant something quite different then), and marrying suitably. Her younger brother, Edward, is going to Oxford – why shouldn’t she? There is a wonderful passage where she describes her father buying her a piano, and her resultant outrage – the cost of said piano would have covered a years tuition at Oxford!

Eventually, the intervention of a visiting academic, highly respectable, helps her case, and she gets her way, frantically learning Greek and studying to gain a place at Somerville College. As a reader, at this stage we have enjoyed living through her account of life in the last few years before war broke out; glorious summers, school presentation days, country walks, the gradual blossoming of a romance between Ms Brittain and her brother’s close friend, Roland Leighton. This relationship looks like very hard work from our modern viewpoint; they are never alone together, and when they do (the war has started by now) manage to take a train ride together without a chaperone, they were too shy to really talk to one another until the very last moment.

So Ms Brittain goes up to Oxford after this huge struggle. One gets the sense that this girl could have done, actually, anything; yet she agonises over everything, possibly because to have expressed confidence in her own ability would have appeared conceited. However, we must remember that the era when this was written, and the period she is writing about, did not in any way encourage women to be clever, smart, self-supporting, independent…we didn’t have the right to vote until 1919, and then only when we had passed thirty!

War changed everything. For Ms Brittain, her brother, his friends, everyone in fact, the initial feeling was patriotic elation.  When she saw how he and the other boys welcomed the prospect of fighting, and perhaps dying “gloriously” for their country, her own imagination lit up. She had enough of it to envisage it’s horror, but she felt she too ought to experience war as much as possible in order to stay with them – particularly Roland – in spirit. As she says, “The War made masochists of us all”. Ms Brittain always capitalised the word War.

So she leaves Oxford, and joins the V.A.D.’s (the Voluntary Aid Detachment, overseen by the Red Cross) as a nurse. Seriously, these girls who did this…you just have to admire them so much.  ‘Young ladies’ who had never had to deal with any disagreeable task, were now coping with horrid conditions and nursing men with hideous wounds. And knowing that their brothers, friends, lovers, were facing the same dangers. Such strength.

Then, the deaths. The absolutely heart-wrenching loss of Roland; he has leave for Christmas, she’s bought a new frock, and then…there’s a telephone call which she takes thinking it is him telling her he is back albeit late; but it is to tell her he has died. Really, really awful, and a point in the book where you do have to stop and think, this is a real person sharing her memories, this really happened, and ask yourself, how on earth does one deal with something like this? I have no idea. I’m still trying to come to terms with Mum’s death, and that was natural.

By 1918, she has lost not only Roland, but her adored brother and two of their close friends, one of whom she has in her grief decided to marry after reading an advert in the Times where a lady, recently bereaved, offers to marry ‘any wounded officer, even blinded’. (This part was hard to read, it was so devastatingly sad). She goes back to Oxford, by now a committed pacifist, but so destroyed by everything that has happened, and finding that the new generation of undergraduates is not at all interested in the War; they just want to have fun. She determines never to marry – to love is to lose –  but here she meets another woman who wants to write, and eventually becomes her closest friend. This is Winifred Holtby, who wrote one of my personal favourite books, ‘South Riding’. (Amazing book – Mum doesn’t have it though!) Together, they break the shackles of their parents, and strike out alone in London to build their futures.

There is a happy-ish ending to all this, you will be relieved to hear. Ms Brittain publishes two novels, but eventually finds her forte as a columnist, and in working for the League Of Nations promoting peace. She marries George Catlin, and has two children. She lives a full and, one hopes, happy life. As I write this, I think that perhaps I may look for her other two autobiographical novels at some stage, just to see what she thought of what she became.

Most of my reading about the first World War has been written by men. This book broke that mould, and gave me a completely different perspective. I thoroughly recommend it.

As always, please let me know if you would like this amazing book to become part of your library, and I will post it out to you. There are two copies, the first one being Mum’s 1980 version. It isn’t easy, but it is very, very good.

EDIT; Both Mum’s copies are already gifted, but here’s a link to the book on Amazon.

 

13. ‘One night in winter’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

I watched several of Mr Montefiore’s TV series with Mum; we both enjoyed them as we agreed that he, although mildly pompous, was undoubtedly erudite, and presented his topics with an infectious enthusiasm. We especially liked ‘Jerusalem’ – a history of the Holy City, which Wikipedia tells me a film company has bought the option to to turn into a Game of Thrones style dramatic series about the city through the ages. Not quite sure how I feel about that, Mum and I shared a great love for GOT, never mind history – regardless, Mr Montefiore does most certainly seem to know his historical stuff. ‘Rome’ was another great series; I had fulfilled a lifelong ambition to spend time in the Eternal City early in the year this series was televised, and so found it more than usually interesting. However, I do have to say that if history, and more specifically, the history of Rome, appeals then you cannot go past Mike Duncan’s excellent podcast series, The History of Rome. Listening to that while making my own (solitary but no less triumphal) entry into the city on foot from five miles out along the Appian Way contributed enormously to a magnificent moment. And Mum approved my march wholeheartedly when I phoned her that night, whilst wondering how my feet were, bless her! But I digress.

I’d not come across this book before, nor indeed the other two Russian novels he has published, and I have really enjoyed it. It’s set in the post WWII Stalinist Soviet Union, which sounds exactly as I have always thought, a thoroughly scary place to be. There’s an almost seamless blend between a liberal sprinkling of historical events and the people who are known to have figured in them, and a cast of fictional characters to flesh the story out, and whom one can’t help but feel are probably very very accurately representative of the thoughts, feelings and actions of possibly countless unknown real people who lived through this (putting it politely) turbulent time in history. It is the central book of three in a series, and the cover boasts one line reviews from the major papers in the UK which heavily feature words like ‘gripping’ and ‘nail biting’. I read it in one sitting, no nails were bitten, but I did spend a lot of time thinking ‘that’s not fair’. Nothing is fair in here. And I find it interesting that I feel more compelled to write about how vicious this regime was than I’m inclined to write about the novel itself.

Put simply, the book pits the brutal power of the Soviet State machinery against the many forms the power of love can take. And does so rather well. Mr Montefiore tells us in an interesting appendix about the factual event that inspired the book – a case brought after a teenage murder/suicide shooting in Moscow against the children of the Kremlin potentates who attended the same school, obviously not because of any search for justice, but because Stalin realised the power this gave him over the parents, most of whom were members of his inner circle. Twenty six teenagers were eventually arrested, and held in the Lubianka Prison for six months, often in solitary confinement. Interrogated, and forced to ‘confess’, this was horrifying; their families fates were literally in their hands. In the book, the author explores the absolute terror of both the children and their families, neither of whom dared protest against the absolute power of the State aka Josef Stalin.  To quote Mr Montefiore, “what if this interrogation uncovered forbidden love affairs and the darkest family secrets, revelations that could lead to death and destruction?”. (There’s the huge clue to the ‘story’.) But, as the reader, one knows this scenario is set in a country and an era where people genuinely could simply disappear, and no one would dare to ask where they had gone. Even their children. Historians estimate varying quantities, but always in the millions, of people died as a direct result of Stalin, whether through purges, famines, or war. The Children’s Case, unfairly, did really happen.

However. On the bright side, ‘real’ people abound in this book, as we must be reassured they actually did. The love for life, literature, and freedom that motivates the children’s Pushkin teacher to sacrifice himself for them. The love, care and concern of Direktor Medvedeva, their headmistress, that made her secretly pay for the education of the son of a known dissident. The carefully concealed yet eventually foiled love between an American interpreter and a Russian student, daughter of a propaganda film star.

These are people we know must have existed, and these are the characters that bring this novel alive with the human values that ordinary people, not so very different from us, must have struggled with in this period in history. I must add that, as someone who genuinely doesn’t like going out much, and would prefer to be in bed by about ten pm, the idea of being summoned by Stalin to drink with him till daybreak and then go to work early to demonstrate my dedication to Bolshevism, especially when he has just ‘arrested’ my teenage daughter – it’s described beautifully in the book – well. Words, unusually, fail me.

I’m going to say that although it’s not a tough read like ‘Persian Fire’, equally it is not a ‘waiting for a plane’ book like ‘Ghost’. This is much better that it seems initially. It’s quite topical, what with the recent events in Salisbury. I’m going to look for ‘Sashenka’ and ‘Red Sky at Noon’, the first and third books. And, as always, if you would like ‘One Night in Winter’ in your library, please get in touch and I’ll post it to you. I’m pretty confident you will enjoy it, I did.

 

 

4. ‘The Ghost’ by Robert Harris

While Mum was not what you’d call a fiercely political person, she was definitely an Independent reading, left of centre liberal with a healthy mistrust of the Establishment. She didn’t buy into conspiracy theories, but was enough of a realist to recognise that shady dealings, as covered in this novel, certainly happen.

Now, I love a good thriller, as did Mum. But this one honestly left me more than a little cold. Well written if a little ‘clunky’ after the last couple of books I have read, it has a potentially interesting storyline; the clandestine dealings between unscrupulous politicians and governments, their lies and deceptions, the impact of these on ordinary people, and the unsuspecting ghost writer who unravels the web of deceit woven by and around a British ex-Prime Minister and his wife. Unsurprising. Readers who lived in the UK during the Bush/Blair Gulf War period will find it even less surprising. And it certainly raised for me some interesting questions about the ‘Special Relationship’ in our current era of Trumpism.

What I did find surprising was the lack of engagement I felt. Perhaps I too have a perennial mistrust of the Establishment, so that although this is a work of fiction, I find it not impossible to believe things like this have happened and are indeed still happening in the corridors of power. And that as an individual, I can do little to alter the state of things save by exercising my right to vote, or sending off an email to my MP, or signing an online petition. And so, as with most of us, I just push on with my own small life and its demands and daily rhythms, trusting in the politicians to do the right thing, which is what I’m sure most of them went into politics wanting to do in the first place. Or perhaps not, reading this book.

So there you have it. Not perhaps the greatest book I have ever read, but an acceptable way to pass the time – I think this was one of Mum’s holiday reads, and I’d recommend it as a ‘passing the time waiting for a train or a plane’ type of book. Let me know if you’d like it and I’ll send it to you….