One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude cover

Fellow blogger Judith (Reader in the Wilderness) and I were supposed to be doing a readalong of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, beginning on July the 1st and reading it in four weekly chunks. Jack had enjoyed it and it’s one of those books that I thought I should read but sad to say I just didn’t get on with it at all, maybe it’s one of those Marmite things, you either love it or hate it. Judith had the same experience, in fact I don’t think she got any further than page 58, I struggled on to the end, despite the fact that I didn’t like any of the characters, didn’t care what happened to them and I’m not a fan of constant repetition which is really what went on in this book.

Characters’ names travel through the generations and presumably in an attempt to be experimental the author chose to write it with a strange structure, that is, beginning at the end of each section and working his way to the beginning. It’s a circular book and I found the ending to be obvious. Maybe an unusual structure is the way to win a Nobel prize for literature!

Seven generations of the Buendia family are worked through in 422 pages. The setting is Macondo which is a small village which had been founded by Jose Arcadia Buendia. According to the blurb on the back this book is – a blend of political reality with magic realism, fantasy with comic invention and is one of the most daringly original works of the twentieth century.

My Penguin copy was translated from Spanish by Gregory Rabassa and there are some surprisingly clunky bits – such as people being hung to a tree and also Saint Augustine is described as having worn a wool jacket under his clothes when surely it should have been a hair shirt.

Hmm – well I actually bought my copy of this book because of the cover – we already had a different edition that Jack had read. For me the cover of this one is still the best thing about it – but as I’m always saying – “it’s just as well we are all different.”

The cover is a detail of Summer (1981) by Tamas Galambos. One Hundred Years of Solitude was first published in 1967.

You can read Jack’s review of the book here.

I read this one as part of the Back to the Classics Challenge.

A Woman in Berlin by anonymous

A Woman in Berlin cover

A Woman in Berlin by anonymous was first published in 1954 in the US in English and was subsequently published in several languages, including Finnish, but it was first published in the UK in 2005 by Virago. There’s an introduction by the historian Antony Beevor.

The anonymous author begins her diary on Friday 20 April 1945, 4 pm and her last entry is Friday, 22 June 1945 and she identifies herself as a journalist who had travelled widely before the war and had even been to Russia where she had managed to pick up some of the language, something which came in handy when the Russian army entered her neighbourhood. Obviously the women were dreading their arrival as they had heard so many rumours of their behaviour. Young girls were hidden away from the soldiers’ eyes in an effort to spare them from their attentions.

This is a grim read at times but not overly so, I’ve read far worse from Russian women writers writing about their experiences as political prisoners in Stalin’s gulags, and it doesn’t come close to matching what the Nazis did or for that matter the horrific things that are happening to young women abducted by armies in parts of Africa.

Rape occurred but the Russian soldiers spared the old, girls under 18 and young mothers. The author discovered that her neighbourhood had been taken over by what she described as elite troops, and other areas had it tougher with less refined soldiers, not that you could really call any of them gentlemanly. Yes the author was raped several times by various different men, then she realised that she must find an officer to attach herself to, in the hope that that would keep the others away from her. A lack of normal deference within the Russian ranks scuppered that hope to begin with but eventually she was seen as Anatol’s woman, unfortunately he was moved on though so she had to begin again.

But it wasn’t all bad news, the neighbours went from starvation to having plenty to eat, thanks to being able to loot the nearby German barracks and getting gifts of food from the Russian soldiers. The few German men who were around kept a very low profile, some of them had been demobbed from the army and they believed that the Russian soldiers would shoot them, but it was Herr Pauli who infuriated me. He was a lodger in the author’s building, lodging with a widow who lived on the ground floor. The author had moved in with them as her attic room on the fourth floor was dangerous while the battle for Berlin was ongoing. Pauli grudged every morsel that the author ate, and I just longed for her to say to him that if it wasn’t for her they would have had nothing to eat at all, but the German women must have been so used to seeing German men as superior beings that she never did give the lazy so and so a piece of her mind. She realises that looking back when all of the soldiers came home on leave they were pampered by the women, despite the fact that they had been living in areas of Europe that hadn’t been getting bombarded by bombs the way Berlin was.

Later in the book the author realised that if she had stayed on the upper floors of the building she would have been safe from the soldiers as they never went up to the higher floors, her theory on that was that as they were nearly all farm boys they weren’t used to stairs and didn’t like climbing up them.

The widow was eventually raped a few times, despite being 50, albeit a young looking 50, however she seems to have been rather pleased by the experience and went around telling everyone that according to her rapist she had a better figure than the Ukrainian women he was used to!

One woman states that if Hitler had been finished off on 20 July 1944, he would have kept some of his aura. That’s absolutely true as he still had plenty of supporters in modern Germany, if he had been a martyr it would only have made that situation worse.

Towards the end of the book the women discover that the Russian army didn’t give their soldiers home leave so many of the men had never seen their wives for over four years, they thought it went some way to understanding their behaviour, especially when they were drunk.

The identity of the author was obviously known to her publisher but she didn’t want this book to be republished in her lifetime as it had caused controversy when it first was published in Germany in 1954, presumably the women in particular didn’t want to admit to themselves what had happened during the Russian occupation. She outlived the publisher but his wife knew her identity and she apparently lived to be over 90 and died in 2001.

The Steps to the Empty Throne by Nigel Tranter

 Bruce Trilogy cover

The Steps to the Empty Throne by Nigel Tranter was first published in 1969 and it’s the first of a Bruce trilogy. I do think though that Tranter was a bit generous with what is known of the history regarding Robert the Bruce, at one point Bruce comes to the aid of William Wallace at the end of a battle, something which almost certainly didn’t happen. In the early days Bruce was known for not being where he should be – when it came to battles. I suspect this was because he had had quite a close relationship with Edward I of England – before Edward became known as ‘The Hammer of the Scots’.

Scotland had always been an independent country but when King Alexander III fell off his horse and died at Kinghorn in Fife (see his memorial at the location here) and then his daughter (The Maid of Norway) – who had been his heir died, that left a power vacuum and that’s what this book is about. The Scots made a huge mistake in asking their neighbour King Edward of England to help to choose between the candidates. Edward decided that John Balliol should get the top job but he had decided to take over himself in Scotland and Balliol was really just Edward’s puppet. As you can imagine this didn’t go down well with the Scots who ended up getting rid of Balliol and signed a treaty with France, always England’s enemy. Edward took this as an excuse to invade Scotland and so began the Wars of Independence. As ever though the Scots were as much at each other’s throats as at war with the English.

A few battles are fought but the book is much more than that. Bruce is a widower but by the end of the book he has remarried so there’s romance too, despite Edward’s manipulations. There’s the difference between William Wallace’s guerrilla warfare and Bruce’s chivalric leanings which he had to give up when Edward’s dirty tricks led to Bruce’s defeat in battles. The manner of Wallace’s execution also enraged so many Scots – so the gloves were off. Bruce had always been keen to avoid being excommunicated by the pope, but inevitably that happens, he was reminded that the Scottish church had originally been a Celtic church and it had been obliterated by Queen Margaret (King Malcolm’s wife) who replaced the Culdees with the Benedictines that she had grown up with. Suddenly excommunication didn’t matter any more.

I’m really looking forward to the next one in this trilogy The Path of the Hero King.

The Exploits of Moominpappa by Tove Jansson

The Exploits of Moominpappa cover

The Exploits of Moominpappa (described by himself) by Tove Jansson was first published in 1952, but I don’t recall ever reading any of the Moomin books as a child, or even to my own boys when they were wee. I thought I should have a look and see what they are about as I know the books are very popular, so when I saw this Puffin paperback in a second-hand bookshop in Edinburgh – I bought it.

I suspect that this one isn’t your usual Moomin book though, I have no idea what age the books were aimed at but this one seems more suited to adults really, certainly not very young children – not that there’s anything untoward in it. It reminded me of the craziness of Alice in Wonderland – Jansson obviously had a great imagination.

The Preface begins: I, Moominpappa am sitting tonight by my window looking out into my garden, where the fireflies embroider their mysterious signs on the velvet dark. Perishable flourishes of a short but happy life!

Moominpappa was abandoned as a youngster on the doorstep of an orphanage which was ruled over by a Hemulen – a very strict personage. Eventually, when he’s old enough he runs away and builds his own house, by a brook and soon he meets Hodgkins who has a houseboat called Oshun, Oxtra, it was supposed to be The Ocean Orchestra but the Muddler painted it and spelling isn’t his strong point and before long they sail off and meet up with various others on their adventure. It was a fun read, but I’m not sure that this one is a typical Moomin book. Have you read any of them?

The Sea for Breakfast by Lillian Beckwith

The Sea for Breakfast cover

The Sea for Breakfast by Lilian Beckwith was first published in 1961 and it’s a sequel to her The Hills is Lonely. The setting is still Skye where ‘Miss Peckwitt’ is having to move out of her lodging in Bruach as her room is needed for some of the members of Morag her landlady’s extended family. Lilian decides to take the plunge and buys a croft which has been abandoned for some years. The house is in need of a lot of work and her neighbours are happy to help out, and we’re introduced to a few more of the eccentric locals.

Some of the animals are a bit confused and when Lilian takes her in season cow to the bull the cow is perplexed when the bull bends down and sucks at her udder, not at all what was required or expected!

The standard of morality and double standards are not at all what is expected on the mainland of Scotland at this time as can be seen by the excerpt below.

‘You’ll know him, of course?’ she asked doubtfully. ‘He lived outside the village but he goes to my own church regularly.’

‘I know that Netta had a baby by him a little while ago,’ I admitted.

‘Oh yes, indeed. But he’s done the right thing by her. He’s made sure the baby was registered under his own name.’

‘But if he admits he’s the father and wants the baby in his own name, why on earth didn’t he marry the girl?’

The teacher looked at me in shocked surprise. ‘Oh, Miss Peckwitt,’ she hissed reproachfully, ‘he’s a good-living man and he’s hoping to be a missionary some day. He could never marry a girl like that.’

Hilarious in a way but that attitude to women rings so true and of course it was always other women who were the most judgemental of other females – at the same time as revering the men.

This was another good read with laugh out loud moments.

Trinity by Conn Iggulden

 Trinity cover

Trinity by Conn Iggulden is the second book in his Wars of the Roses trilogy and it was published in 2014.

The date is 1454 and King Henry VI is still haunted by a mystery illness which has him in a vacant and sleepy state for months on end, unable to take any part in ruling of his kingdom. Inevitably this has led to those who are close to the throne casting their eyes in that direction. The actual heir to the throne is Henry’s small son and his mother Queen Margaret fears for the future, but she’s no shrinking violet and is determined to keep control of the realm while King Henry is out of commission. Men and families are taking sides, either supporting the King or Richard, Duke of York, who is supposedly the Protector of the Realm. Lancaster or York, which side are you on?

I really loved this one although there is a lot of fighting in it. I was particularly interested in the Battle of St Albans with soldiers crashing through houses and gardens to get to the enemy. It’s a place I haven’t been though and I wonder if they have interesting historical notes carved into the paving stones – as they do in Worcester where fighting went on within that town in a later time of English conflict.

I’m really looking forward to reading the last in this series.

New-to-me book purchases

I was really getting bookshop withdrawal symptoms as I hadn’t been to a second-hand bookshop for ages, so on Monday we drove to St Andrews, a place that we used to visit almost on a weekly basis but hadn’t been to for months – for no good reason at all. Anyway, it wasn’t long before I found some books that I just had to take home with me.

More Books New to Me

I found a Beverley Nichols book that I didn’t even realise existed.
Men Do Not Weep seems to be a book about World War 2 and was published in 1941, I think it’ll be an interesting read. You never know what you’ll get with Beverley Nichols though – his writing was so diverse, from cats to gardening and home hunting, novels and his thoughts on the USA.

Still on the subject of war is another book that I hadn’t heard of. It was the fact that I noticed Antony Beevor’s name on the cover that made me have a look at it as the author is anonymous. A Woman in Berlin is a diary which was written from 20th April 1945 to 22 June 1945. Not very long at all but a grim time in Berlin I’m sure. However on the back there’s a comment from the author Nina Bawden who says – ‘It could have been an unbearable story if it had not been for the courage and, astonishingly, the humour with which it is often told.’ It sounds like a must read to me. It was published by Virago.

Then I spotted a copy of a Geoff Hamilton book called Cottage Gardens, my favourite kind of garden and by my absolutely all time favourite garden writer and Gardeners’ World presenter, still lamented by me anyway 20 odd years after his far too early death.

On Tuesday we set off for Edinburgh, well we had seen the weather forecast and knew that we should grab every good day as it looks like the rain is coming in again on Thursday and Friday. After lunch at The Secret Herb Garden (more about that in a post still to come) we drove to Stockbridge, my favourite part of Edinburgh.

My first purchase was Curtain Up by Noel Streatfeild. I wasn’t sure about this one but the inside blurb says: ‘Plucked from their old home in Guernsey and sent all the way to wartime London to stay with their dead mother’s family ….’ This sounds right up my street – even if it was aimed at children.

The next was another Virago – Good Daughters by Mary Hocking. I haven’t read anything by the author but I know she’s fairly popular. This seems to be the first of a trilogy – the story of a family during the Second World War. Do you see a pattern forming here?! Apparently Mary Hocking brings good humour and sympathy to her depiction of the Fairley sisters growing up in their close-knit West London neighbourhood before, during and after the war.

Lastly I was really pleased to find a copy of ‘In the beginning’ said Great-Aunt Jane by Helen Bradley. I love her naive style of painting which she used to illustrate her own childhood memories for her grandchildren.

Have you read any of these ones?

Homespun by Annie S. Swan

Homespun cover

Homespun by Annie S.Swan was first published in 1893 and its subtitle is – a study of simple folk. The setting is the small village of Beild, supposedly the lowlands of Scotland but this was one of the two books that she got material for while she lived in the very small village of Star of Markinch in Fife where her husband James Burnett-Smith was the schoolmaster, before he left so that he could pursue his ambition of studying to become a doctor.

Beild is a typical wee Scottish place where gossip is the main occupation of the inhabitants and there are the usual village rivalries. The pub is frequented by many but particularly by four old bachelors for whom it’s a home from home. In one of their more drunken moments they decide that it’ll be a good laugh if one of them proposes marriage to a local spinster, no doubt expecting her to be outraged by the drunken man. It doesn’t go as hoped though as the spinster accepts the proposal – well, she had discovered that he had some savings and she believed she could control his boozing. He’s stuck.

This is a typical sentimental book of its day, plenty of romance, sorrow and a local cossetted son who has been away studying to be a minister packs the church out at his first sermon as a probationer. He’s so disliked they’re all hoping for a disaster of course. This book is quite entertaining in an old and coothie way.

I think that the author’s reaction to living in Star/Beild for two years as she did is summed up below.

To fully master the intricacies of the Beild character, old or young, you have to be brought up in the place; no stranger has half a chance.

You can read a bit more about her here.

The Hills is Lonely by Lillian Beckwith

The Hills is Lonely cover

The Hills is Lonely by Lillian Beckwith was first published in 1959, the year of my birth as it happens – yes I have fairly recently celebrated a BIG birthday. I remember that this book was very popular in the early 1970s when I was working in a public library. It has taken me some time to get around to it. My copy of the book is a lovely hardback reprint from 1973.

This book is quite autobiographical as after an illness Beckwith’s doctor recommended to her that she should move to a rural location for the good of her health so she and her husband moved to the Isle of Skye from the north of England. In the book though Lillian Beckwith or Miss Peckwit as the islanders with their soft consonants call her is a middle aged spinster who moves into a cottage belonging to Morag McDugan who answered her advert for accommodation on the island.

Presumably Lillian’s health problems were all of a nervous/mental health nature as her experiences of reaching Morag’s house would have just about killed anyone with physical health problems. Morag’s garden gate is under water when the winter tide comes in so the only way into her cottage is to climb a six foot stone wall which is what Lillian does – in a howling rainstorm.

This is a really funny read, just what I was needing. It reminded me a wee bit of Cold Comfort Farm with its rural location and odd locals. The island and its inhabitants are a real culture shock to Lillian, it’s a spartan lifestyle with a very limited diet it would seem and cleanliness isn’t a high priority for anyone, but the cottages didn’t have mains water and any of the things that we all take for granted.

Despite Skye being supposedly a very strict religious community, it is really only on the surface, the islanders go to church just for the entertainment value – and the gossip. In reality illegitimate children are common as are rushed weddings.

I bought this book at an antiques centre which has a secondhand book section and the woman who served me mentioned that the book title is bad grammar, which it is, but it comes about because the inhabitants of Skye at that time spoke Gaelic as their first language and they translated into English straight from the Gaelic which is very different. It’s one of those pesky languages that has genders and strangely cows are male, and if you want to say that you have a cat you say ‘ the cat has me’ which looking around at some cat owners I would say that is exactly correct!

I’ve gone on to read the next one in this trilogy – The Sea for Breakfast.

INDEPENDENCE An argument for Home Rule by Alasdair Gray

 Independence cover

INDEPENDENCE An argument for Home Rule by Alasdair Gray was published in 2014, so before the Independence referendum of 2014 and it contains eleven chapters and a postscript.

It was Jack who gave me this one to read and you can read his thoughts on it here.

The book begins with Alasdair Gray’s prologue in which he writes: This book is written for Scots, by whom I mean anyone in Scotland who will vote in the September referendum to make Scotland a more or less independent nation.

The chapter titles include:
National Geology – How Lands Make People Behave

Anglo-Scots Differences

Old and New Corruption 1800 – 1976

UK Parliament, North Sea Oil A New Chapter in Old Corruption

Settlers and Colonists A Controversial Topic

A Small Stir of Correspondence More Controversial Matter

In Settlers and Colonists he writes about being asked to write an article on the subject and the result of that was that he was called a racist by people who had never even read the article and questions were asked in the Scottish Parliament. In this chapter he clarifies the situation, explaining the differences between the two. Basically Settlers are people who arrive in Scotland from another country but are happy to embrace the place, people and culture – in my experience these people often cheerfully end up becoming more Scots than the native Scots.

Colonists move to Scotland as a sort of smash and grab raid, often being given high profile jobs in Scottish culture, knowing nothing about the subject, but for them it’s a stepping stone to getting a similar position in England, they usually stay a very short time. In my experience these people usually come to Scotland and grouse about everything – declaring loudly how much better everything is elsewhere – in their opinion. Not the way to win friends and influence people.

The next chapter – A Small Stir of Correspondence was the upshot of Gray mentioning the difference between Settlers and Colonists. Pete Selman who was the Director of Properties and Visitor Services at the National Trust for Scotland and took umbrage at what Gray had said at something he was invited to. It’s a bullying letter from him demanding an apology from Gray and threatening to remove his books from the National Trust shelves because as far as he knew they weren’t selling any of his books anyway.

Alasdair Gray’s reply to Selman is a cracker, needless to say that he didn’t get a reply to it. Among many things Gray pointed out that his mother’s parents were both English and he has never had any problem with English people choosing to live in Scotland or indeed the many Scots who live in other parts of the world – only the carpetbaggers.

It’s all about peoples’ attitude to others or as one of our English friends says – some English people come to Scotland and ‘do the English thing’ – by which he meant they throw their weight about.

This is an interesting read, and what with all this Brexit chaos it highlights the differences between the two so-called united kingdoms. If Scots had known that Brexit would become UK Government policy within two years the outcome of the 2014 Independence Referendum might have been very different.