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Book Reviews

The SS Officer’s Armchair: in search of a hidden life by Daniel Lee (Cape, £20)

This book starts at a dinner party. A new acquaintance of the author described how her mother had take an armchair for repair in Holland, and the upholsterer had found a pile of Nazi documents sown into the upholstery to his consternation and to the astonishment of the chair’s owner. Daniel Lee, a historian, immediately wanted to know more – what were the papers, what was the story.
His new friend’s mother had bought the chair second hand in Czechoslovakia many years before. Soon Daniel Lee was examining the documents which had belonged to a Nazi lawyer, Robert Griesinger and was off on in pursuit of the story. Who was he? Did he survive the war? Why did he hide the papers? Did he have any living relatives?
It turns out that Griesinger was a genuine Nazi, a member of the SS, though part of their civilian branch. He was also a war criminal, but in the scale of things, not a serious player. Lee was able to trace the children of Griesinger – indeed, by then he knew more about their father than they did. Pre-war, Griesinger was active in the SS mostly in Württemberg in Swabia, and their records show that the SS behaved in many ways like, say the Rotary Club but with added marching, singing and racism. They had a community function, in one case building a new house for a member’s family who had died in an accident.
The membership rules, however, of the SS were strict – marriages had to be approved and a full family tree of the partners had to be presented to ensure there was no trace of a genetic illness or Jewish blood hidden in the background. It was still unclear what would happen later. In 1936 the – now Nazi – government even removed anti-Semitic posters for the period of the Olympics, replacing them with adverts for Coca Cola. International image still mattered and the SS did love sport.
Of course it got darker. Spoiler alert – Griesinger did not survive. He died, or was killed, in mysterious circumstances in Prague at the end of the war. His wife and children made it back to Germany, with difficulty – but he stayed at his post after it was all over and the Czech people arose against both the occupying Germans and the ethnic German community in Czechoslovakia. There were war crimes there too.
What makes this book stand out from other war books is that it concentrates on the life and career of a middle-ranking Nazi official. He was not a monster, neither was he just compromised as he was a career Nazi by choice. What also makes this book stand out is the astonishing amount of information Lee was able to find out. Every move Griesinger made was tracked, every house he lived in was examined from the outside (and sometimes from the inside) and through its extant records of residence. It seems that Germany kept everything – thus Lee was able to examine internal references and reports on Griesinger’s work. Within the dusty files of the Ministry of Economics and Labour he was able to find documents that Griesinger wrote, including, bizarrely, correspondence about recycling beer bottles in 1944 when, it appears Bulgaria was “the only country not to return bottles”. Meanwhile, across Europe…
There is also some irony – is that the right word? – that Griesinger’s father’s family came from America, migrating back to Germany. His father had been born in 1871 in New Orleans. The family had been involved in slavery, both as owners and – there’s no surprise – fathers of children. Griesinger, the Nazi, had Black relatives in America. Lee was able to trace them and met one relative, Marshall Honoré  Jnr., then in his mid-90s. Honoré fought at Normandy and at the Battle of the Bulge, crossing the Rhine in spring 1945, penetrating deep into Germany fighting the Nazis. Here the word irony works; his unit was segregated.
 
Ross Bradshaw
The SS Officer’s Armchair is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/the-ss-officers-armchair-in-search-of-a-hidden-life/

Mudlarking: lost and found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem (Bloomsbury, £9.99)

New Year – new hobby? How about mudlarking? First find a big tidal river which has a couple of thousands of years of human habitation alongside – the Thames will do nicely. Get yourself some maps and tide calendars and a knowledge of history. Get your eye in, you only have to look. And you are all set. Within minutes you’ll likely pick up a bit of an old clay pipe, some nails, and, if you are not careful, an unpleasant water-borne disease, a welly-boot full of stinking mud and be trapped by the sea coming in.
You will need a long-suffering partner – Lara Maiklem’s wife has only visited the foreshore a couple of times ever – who doesn’t mind you coming up smelling of the riverbank and stuffing your house with twenty years’ worth of bits of broken crockery, dolls’ heads and bits of metal type. For Lara is the sort of person who writes ” I came to bricks fairly late, having ignored them for many years, but they are surprisingly interesting…”
Whatever we have used, it has ended up in the Thames. Chucked in or dumped, mostly, as sewerage is a fairly modern invention. Or lost. At one time there were 12,000 wherries operating on the Thames, the taxi service of the day, and things – and sometimes people – fell overboard.
From time to time Maiklem over-uses “perhaps” in imagining who might have held the 400 year old item that has just surfaced. She is on more solid ground when she researches the real stories of coins, tokens, beads, pin-heads, pipe-bowls and the former buildings that lined the Thames giving rise to the particular rubbish outside their premises. Because mostly this is the rubbish of the past, buried in mud for hundreds of years. The mud preserved the material as it was without oxygen, which sometimes meant that items that surfaced would break down on contact with the air and fresh water.
The history of mudlarking is not a great one – it’s the story of the London poor who would scrabble for bits of metal, coal and the debris of ships and rubbish generally to survive. This at a time when the Thames was the heart of our Empire’s shipping and an open sewer. Indeed, as late as 1957 the water of the Thames was considered to be dead. Even now there are places on the foreshore where the soil contains “asbestos, lead, arsenic and cadmium. It is filled with poisons and carcinogens…” And there is our modern additions of plastic and micro-plastics too.
Maiklem is one of the mudlarkers who uses her eyes, not metal detectors, scanning the ground carefully – mostly down on her knees wearing fetid kneepads and only slightly less fetid overalls. (Please don’t sit next to me on the tube…) She is critical of the mudlarkers who use metal detectors or who dig deep in the foreshore, their holes encouraging erosion. There’s a wonderful section of photos in her book showing some of her finds – and I would like to see more.
The best story, however, is hinted at on the cover. The title page, the running heads of the book and some of the text is typeset in Dove. The owners of the Dove typeface (in the days of metal type) fell out and every bit of it was chucked in the Thames in 1916. One hundred years later a designer wanted to recreate Dove and started trawling the banks around Hammersmith where he knew it had been dumped. After twenty minutes at low tide he found the letter “i”. Of the 500,000 bits of type thrown in the river, with the help of some divers, he found 150 or so – the site had had concrete poured on it during a bridge repair. But he did not find a comma – Maiklem did.
Another reason to read this book is to learn more about the history and geography of London – the most tantalising part being the story of the Tower Beach where 1500 barges of yellow Essex sand was dumped on the foreshore in 1934 to create a “London Riviera”. In 1935 100,000 Londoners went to their own “seaside” to build sandcastles, watch Punch and Judy shows and the like. It was closed in 1971 due to concerns about pollution and all that now remains is a much smaller half-moon of yellow sand, the rest washed away by the tide.
Ross Bradshaw
Mudlarking is available here – fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/mudlarking/

A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar (Penguin, £9.99)

Hisham Matar is probably best known for his 2017 bookThe Return: fathers, sons and the land in between which describes his post-Gaddafi return to Libya to find out what happened to his father, a victim of Gaddafi’s rule.
Following his father’s disappearance, Matar became interested, obsessed with the paintings of the Siena School, religious paintings from around the fourteenth century. After The Return came out – still grieving, he finally visits Siena, and this 2019 memoir is of the month he spent there alone. It’s a short book, about art, about grief, about being alone and being a stranger in a strange city.
Matar makes his purpose clear, in this beautiful book. He finds a peaceful spot in the local cemetery where he was “… the mourner without a grave”, planning to “sit for a few moments and listen to the birds.” Going on he writes “I knew then that I had come to Siena not only to look at paintings. I had also come to grieve alone, to consider the new terrain and to work out how I might continue from here.”
But the book is also about art and includes many of the Sienese paintings, which he analyses, particularly the Good/Bad Government frescos, which stretch to 14.5 metres in the room that features Lorenzetti’s ‘Allegory of good government’ – part of which is pictured here. There’s also the “unsettling” ‘Madonna del latte’ by the same painter, which is as unsettling as he describes it. The publisher has done a good job on the reproductions in this inexpensive paperback, especially in bringing out detail, but of course I long to see the originals. Matar spent so long with the paintings that the guards gave him a folding chair so that he could spend even longer in front of a picture, which he then did. “Didn’t we tell you?” said one.
Matar did not remain completely alone. Hearing a family speak Arabic, he greets them and is invited home by Adam and his children Kareem and Salma. Though from Jordan – half a continent away from Libya – they welcomed him as if family, explaining the town’s complex contrada system of neighbourhood loyalties and competition. He walked back from the evening he spent with them holding their kindness to “my chest as though it were a precious object I had been given.”
Matar ends the book, back in New York, reunited with his partner Diana, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at the Sienese painting ‘Paradise” by Giovanni di Paolo, painted around 1445, to return there weekly “as though we were going to see an old friend”.
Ross Bradshaw
A Month in Siena is available here – fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/a-month-in-siena/

Agent Sonya by Ben McIntyre (Viking, £25)

“Ursula never saw Richard Sorge again. Perhaps their romantic relationship was already over, but for Ursula it never really ended.
Ursula returned to her dreary dinner guests. No one noticed that her heart was broken.”

Hmm. This is the story of Ursula Kuczynski, a colonel in the Red Army and one of the world’s most successful spies – Agent Sonya of the title and of the sub-title Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy. It’s not an untold story, or at least some of it is not untold, not least by Kuczynski herself in her autobiography, though this is the fullest version we are likely to read. Kuczynski was a German Jewish Communist who worked in several countries – including in a bookshop in America (you really have to watch that type) and spied in most of them. She was the handler of Klaus Fuchs and Melissa Norwood (the subject of the book The Spy Who Came in from the Co-op) and her work ensured that the Soviet Union was privy to the detail of Western plans for nuclear weapons, enabling the East and West to have Mutually Assured Destruction. She would argue that this helped create peace, or at least that it was able to defend the Soviet Union.

As the sub-title and the sub-Mills and Book opening quote suggest, this is a typical Ben McIntyre book aimed at the popular market. No bad thing, but over-writing is over-writing and we could have done with less. The story, however, fascinates and McIntyre calms down a bit.

Sonya – one of her many names – was a radio operator, a courier, an organiser and a handler. Her life was often at risk. Richard Sorge, a fellow spy mentioned earlier was tortured and hung, in Japan, and that could have been her fate too. She was, however, possibly even more at risk from her own side – on pages 138/139 there are details of friends, fellow spies, comrades “swept away in the butchery” that was Stalin’s Russia in 1937 and 1938, the period of the Great Purges that did so much to weaken the Soviet Union as the war with Germany approached. She was in the Soviet Union during this period and was only too aware of the fate of others. Despite this she kept the faith and her big successes were still to come.

In England, as Mrs Burton of Avenue Cottage, Summertown, Oxford she lived a quiet life, cycling around (taking in dead letter drops), drinking tea with her neighbours and making scones. Throughout her spying career she got away with a lot as a mother of three, because spies are never mothers of three. Yet sixteen days after the top secret “Quebec Agreement” between Churchill and Roosevelt to collaborate on building the atom bomb the Soviet Union knew, thanks to Sonia. This was before the Cold War when Britain, the Soviet Union and America were allies.

One of the particularly fascinating parts of the book is about the “Hammer” group of spies. This was a group of exiled German Communists parachuted into Germany to act as spies towards the end of the war, who would report on troop movements and provide information for bombing missions to the Americans. Their direct command was the OSS – the American intelligence organisation, the Organisation of Strategic Services – but they were under the real control of Sonya.

After Klaus Fuchs was arrested. Sonya skipped the country, moving to the German Democratic Republic. Although she had been under suspicion, nobody here knew of her real role in the UK. Or did they? McIntyre revisits whether Roger Hollis, the big cheese in the UK spy world, was really a double agent. Whatever, she escaped to a desk job in the GDR but was caught up in the Government anti-Semitic hysteria in the GDR in 1953. Astonishingly, a new career awaited as she became a successful writer – “Ruth Werner, novelist.” She’d outwitted everyone.

Available from Five Leaves here – fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/…/agent-sonya-lover-mother-soldie…/

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitgerald ((Oldcastle, £7.99)

Next year Michael Farris Smith is publishing a prequel to The Great Gatsby, focusing on the life of Nick Carraway, who was Jay Gatsby’s neighbour in the original and the book’s narrator. Seeing it announced encouraged me to re-read Fitzgerald’s book, having only a half memory of languid women of the Jazz Age and the sort of parties I would rather die than attend, hosted by Gatsby. I should say, if you have not read the book or seen the film, there are spoilers below.
I’d like to think that when I first read the book – decades ago – I was brought up short on page 32 when one Tom Buchanan starts talking about The Rise of Coloured Empires, whose author “… has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.” How very QAnon. Tom then, is a baddie. His wife Daisy does not exactly share his views, nor are they shared by the narrator Nick, a distant relative of Daisy’s but Nick knows nobody other than them, having pitched up on Long Island working as a bond salesman. No, me neither, but it’s legit if not exactly productive employment.
Nick lives across the Sound from Daisy and Tom, having rented a place next to Jay Gatsby’s pile where every weekend high society turns up to party. “…the Mulreadys and Cecil Roebuck and Cecil Schoen and Gullick the state senator and Newton Orchid who controlled Films Par Excellence… And the Catlips and the Bembergs and G. Earl Muldoon, brother to that Muldoon who strangled his wife. … and the Chromes and the Backhyssons and the Dennickers…” Fitzgerald must have had fun with this two page long list. “All these people came to Gatsby’s house in the summer.” But none of them really knew who Gatsby was, or, more importantly for those at the sort of superspreader parties Trump would love, where he got his money. There were rumours disguised as facts, facts disguised as rumours but it was unlikely to be through honest toil. Bootlegging maybe.
Though Nick hated the parties, he was fascinated by Gatsby, who, it turned out was in love with Daisy and had carried a torch for her for five years some of which he spent at war in Europe, then time at “Oggsford” as the one person who seemed to know him explained. Nick, Nick’s languid girlfriend, Tom and Daisy and Gatsby circle round each other. Tom has a mistress, the wife of a garage owner and, after a row, Daisy runs her down while driving Gatsby’s car, killing her. It’s an accident but Daisy and Gatsby hit and ran. The garage owner traces Gatsby and, thinking it must have been him driving his own car, shoots him, then shoots himself. Look, I said there were spoilers.
Nick is desolate, and does the rounds to get people to attend the funeral. No-one comes, save Gatsby’s father – an ordinary Joe from out of town, still believing that Gatsby had done good, Nick and one of the odder party guests, and that’s it. Even the one person who seemed to be a real friend, who’d talked about “Oggsford” and was rumoured to be the man who fixed the 1919 World Series, declined to attend. “I can’t do it – I can’t get mixed up in it.” Nick “felt a certain shame for Gatsby”. It was time for everyone to move on, including Nick who decided to go back West and Daisy, who loved Gatsby, but had definitely moved on, still with Tom. It was over.
Gatsby’s world made me shudder, as much as I shudder when I see the celeb focused mags on newsagent shelves, and when reading of the parties attended by our own High Society, the Camerons, the Johnsons, the Lebedevs, the Elton Johns… it would be easy to draw up one’s own two page list.
The book still holds up.
Fitzgerald is out of copyright, so there are several editions of the book, but this one’s cover is a homage to the original of 1925. It also includes an intro by Michael Farris Smith and a promotional chapter for his forthcoming Nick, the prequel.
The Great Gatsby is orderable here – https://fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/the-great-gatsby/
Ross Bradshaw

Bookshop Tours of Britain, by Louise Boland (Fairlight, £16.99)

I have one serious complaint about this book, which is that Louise Boland never took me with her on her journeys around the bookshops of Britain. Not that I have ever met her or knew anything much about the book in advance, but I can still bear a grudge, surely.
This would be the holiday of a lifetime, guaranteed to break the bank as you can’t really visit a new bookshop without buying a book… And the tour covers hundreds of bookshops – and, along the way, country houses, museums and other places of tourist interest.
Her trip north includes The Ceilidh Place in Ullapool which is also a hotel and a pub, while her most southerly stop is The Edge of the World Bookshop in Penzance. Both these shops hold regular live events (or did, before COVID) and both these towns manage to support two independents, also covered in the book. Largely the book is about independents, for obvious reasons, but there are features on the biggest Waterstones in Piccadilly, Foyles, Oxford Blackwells and Hatchards. Hatchards, owned by Waterstones, is well-known to be the oldest continually operated bookshop in the UK – but it isn’t! Step forward Whitie’s Books and Crafts in the Scottish Border town of Peebles, trading since 1791 and run by the same family since 1899.
Whitie’s doesn’t have the biggest book stock in the world, but it does also sell wool and has a haberdashery department. Maybe that’s a Scottish Border thing as Main Street Trading – a really excellent bookshop, by the way, also sells tableware and antiques. Other bookshop items around the country include globes and (oh dear, how do you stop the staff getting too enthusiastic for the product) ice-cream.
Many of the shops are in small towns or villages and operate from attractive, sometimes historic premises and this book is full of photos. I’m not sure if Bookshop Tours qualifies as a vade-mecum as it is heavy, printed on art paper to show the photos to their advantage. It’s beautiful. Not every bookshop is visited – I was hoping to see something of the Stromness Bookshop on Orkney, which orders more books published by Five Leaves than just about anywhere. And locally her tour didn’t reach our friends at Kibworth, or indeed Page 45, but she says nice things about us and The Bookcase in Lowdham. She restricts herself to saying nice things – this is a bookshop tour guide, not a critique. Her view is that we are all doing a great job. And it is largely about bookshops selling new books. Maybe another volume for second hand?
Our own little national family of shop friends is well covered, including a lot on Gays the Word, Housmans, Scarthin, Sam Read, Lighthouse, News from Nowhere, Category is Books and Portal (two new LGBT bookshops). There’s a nice photo of October Bookshop’s shop front, which looks like a bank building. It *was*, with October being the first radical bookshop to buy a bank. Capitalism replaced with anti-capitalist books. Nice.
Time to mention animals. It’s well known that indie bookshop owners often have a dog on their staff. Many are pictured, with Quayside Bookshop’s Kaiser being something of a tourist attraction in Teignmouth. However, if I ever get to Devon, the dog Astor of Astor’s Bookshop in Chagford has the most soulful eyes of any dog ever. Astor gets a full page picture. Another shop has a tortoise while Much Ado Books in Alfriston has chickens in their courtyard, though on the day of the author’s visit they had come into the bookshop itself. Maybe we could use our alley… “Would you like some eggs with that?” I can see it now.
Ross Bradshaw
Author signed copies of Bookshop Tours of Britain are available here – http://fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/…/bookshop-tours-of…/

 

Not a Novel: collected writings and reflections by Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. from German by Kurt Beals (Granta, £14.99)

“So what was I doing the night the wall fell? I spent the evening with friends, just a few blocks from the spot where world history was being made, and then: I slept, I literally slept through that moment of world history, and while I was asleep the pot wasn’t just being stirred, it was being knocked over and smashed to bits. The next morning I learned: we didn’t even need pots anymore.”
This was the night the Berlin Wall fell, the Wall being the subject of several of the essays in this collection, essays about the author’s childhood living in a street right next to the Wall which, as a child she saw as being the ends of the earth. Except though the physical boundary marked the end of the known earth, the flat she lived in enabled her to see into another world. A world that had double decker buses, then unknown in East Berlin, and a glowing clock. She writes “The whole time that I’m in school, I read the time for my socialist life from this clock in the other world.” On her side, Berlin was something of a construction site, but also a world of ruins. Nobody was that fussed about the bombed wartime remains of buildings which she climbed into to explore and, later, to meet her first boyfriend.
Several decades ago, in Aberdeen, skint and on the lookout for ways of getting a holiday on the sly, I attended a few meetings of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) Friendship Society in a rather posh house in the hope that I might score a holiday. The elderly woman who ran the Society kept getting awards from the GDR and was a bit batty, but not so batty as to allow me a subsidised holiday at her beloved GDR’s expense. Reading about the place was the nearest I got over the years, which included quite a lot by John Green who used to live there. John, in short, says it wasn’t as bad as its detractors made out, but not as good as its supporters have said.
This ambivalence seems to be shared by Erpenbeck. After the fall… “Many workers lost their jobs and university professors, lecturers and researchers were laid off in the East and replaced… When the common currency was introduced, rents increased by a factor of ten overnight. West German speculators bought up East German real estate. … Suddenly everyone was talking about money.” She goes on to analyse borders, their history and who gets mourned. But the Wall was very personal, She describes an old neighbour “who always bought his rolls at the bakery across the street… until suddenly that side of the street was in the West.” She describes as a child knowing that “the warm air that drifted up to us” was coming from ventilation shafts from the Western underground that passed beneath their feet, not stopping at “subway stations that had been closed off ever since the wall had been built.” … “But what I remember most of all… was an almost small-town sense of calm… in a world that was closed off, and thus completely and utterly safe.” Even if spied on – her thin Stasi file included details of those who had visited her house and copies of love letters sent to her by a teenage admirer!
Unfortunately, when she moves away from the subject of the Wall and her early years, Not a Novel is much less interesting. Chapter after chapter comprises speeches she gave after winning awards. There’s repetition that we could have lived without and several of the speeches are related to the particular books that won the awards. Attention wandered. I’m not sure who would be the audience for some of these chapters other than the audience at the award ceremonies themselves. Still, one chapter has reminded me that I have still not read Thomas Mann, despite having had The Magic Mountain on my shelves for most of my life and another introduced me to the work of Walter Kempowski whose books I have sold but never looked at. I will now.
I can’t end this review without mentioning one tiny chapter in a small section at the end called Society. There she writes an obituary for the most wonderful man, Bashir Zakaryau, a Nigerian refugee who, after “five years of flight” finally obtained a tiny apartment in Berlin which he immediately filled with other homeless refugees who also needed shelter.
Ross Bradshaw
Not a Novel is published in November of this year.

Mazel Tov: the story of my extraordinary friendship with an Orthodox Jewish family by JS Margot, translated from Flemish by Jane Hedley-Prole (Pushkin, £12.99)

On the right hand lintel of the front doors of the houses of most Jews I know is a mezuzzah, a little tube with a particular Biblical quote in it handwritten by a professional scribe in Hebrew letters. Visiting Lithuania some years ago it was heartbreaking to see the shadows of mezuzzahs on the paintwork of old houses taken over during the Holocaust.
But it’s pretty odd really. Why is the scroll handwritten when nobody will ever read it? And why… But every religion has its idiosyncrasies which make no sense to outsiders. In the Jewish world the more Orthodox you are the more rules you follow and the more odd these appear to outsiders and even other Jews.
Into the world of Jewish Orthodoxy steps JS Margot, a 20 year old student, employed to do some home tutoring for a middle-class Belgian Orthodox Jewish family. That itself would be unusual. She had no previous connection to the Jewish world and hadn’t a clue about the life she was walking into. Surprisingly, she stayed for years and years, becoming a family friend.
Of course she gets things wrong, but this isn’t a book of humorous interludes (though there are some). She also disagrees with the family in their Zionism (not, by the way, a position at all universally held by Orthodox Jews) and finds the actions of the Israeli government and troops upsetting. She gets to understand anti-Semitism, but the most interesting part of the book is her reflections on her own life. She is a modern woman, has boyfriend trouble, true, but initially sees her modernity as better than their traditional life. Yet over the years, struggling financially and emotionally she finds herself more sympathetic to that other world especially when she is adrift in her own.
No, she does not convert, nor fall in love, and is still bemused and at times angered by what she sees. But her unlikely closeness to the family gives her an insight into a world that neither expects or wants our interest or understanding. The author is constantly discovering more. The eruv for example, “a ritual enclosure of a specific domain” – in this case, and uniquely, the domain is the the whole of Antwerp which turns that public space into a private space. Thus, on the Jewish sabbath, “certain strictly defined actions were permissible: carrying a baby, carrying shopping, pushing a pram…” because a boundary had been created, an enclosure sealed by overhead wires joining other physical boundaries. Without the eruv Orthodox Jews could not do any of these activities on their sabbath. Margot writes, bemused, “I didn’t know what to think of the eruv.” Don’t even think about the dietary rules. But she has to.
There’s a form of “orientalism” in the way the black-hatted Jewish men and their modestly-dressed wives and large families in Stamford Hill in London (or in Antwerp, the setting of this book) are seen. There’s certainly a lot of interest – Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience (a novel that became a film) in which an Orthodox rabbi’s married daughter has a forbidden lesbian relationship had a big circulation a few years back. Currently the book and film covering related ground is Unorthodox, by Deborah Feldman, which describes her journey in leaving the Satmar Hassidic group. Feldman provides a cover quote for Mazel Tov, thus linking the two books.
If there is a tendency to read books like these and feel a bit voyeuristic, Margot covers our back here as the book is as much about her as it is about the family she befriends.
Mazel Tov, by the way, means “congratulations”, a Yiddish phrase used by religious and secular Jews. Margot and her translator can be congratulated on an excellent and accessible read.
Ross Bradshaw

The Bookseller’s Tale by Martin Latham (Particular Books, £16.99)

I’m a sucker for books about bookshops and publishing, with an embarrassing number of books on this subject, even some of that tacky sub-genre about books where someone inherits an unlikely bookshop and a customer falls in love with them. Sadly these are all in rural areas of France or Germany, in America or Australia and sometimes the bookshop is on a barge, not downtown Nottingham, but I can dream.

The Bookseller’s Tale is more of the weird and definitely wonderful stories attached to bookselling, not least Martin Latham’s own story, though he is slightly coy perhaps about the bulk of career being at Waterstones as such. Of course he mentions it, but not much.  But it is Canterbury Waterstones, and our publishing wing owes him a favour as he used to promote our old New London Editions books, our reprints of forgotten books from the 1960s, which we must return to sometime. His tales of the supernatural within the bookshop make me jealous.
His Tale is, however, not just one of anecdotes. On page 74 the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin wanders into the book, as does Walter Benjamin. This in a chapter devoted to the early book peddlers who sold books door to door and from barrows. Here you can discover the origin of the word chapbook, a type of pamphlet loved by poets, which were sold by chapmen – hawkers basically.
From there we move to ancient libraries, the ur-libraries he suggests, not least as perhaps the original library was at Ur. Here we also find the old libraries of the Islamic world where “what’s written in Cairo is published in Beirut, but read in Baghdad.”
The author is not exactly absent from the text and a flavour of his own practice is found with him saying that his favourite question to ask at interview – for a bookseller, mind – was “Who would win a fight in a pub car park between a vampire and a werewolf?” There are of course parts of Nottingham where this happens every Saturday night so some Nottinghamians would have direct experience to offer here.
His chapter on marginalia is fun, giving lots of examples of historic and literary scibblings in the margins of books. Meant for posterity or for personal record? It varies.
As a bookseller I like to think of myself as being in a profession, within a trade that has to be learned. After decades in the business I’m still learning, slower perhaps than I should be so I would have had little chance of being a bookseller in Renaissance Venice where you had to serve a five year apprentice and pass an exam covering nature, philosophy and several languages. No mention of vampires there though, but perhaps Renaissance Venice was short of car parks. It wasn’t easy in bookselling at certain times, with the 1492 “Bonfire of the vanities” in Florence and in Venice itself the Doge was told by the Pope in 1562 that all books had to be checked by the Inquisitor before going on sale. He was opposed by one Friar Paolo Sarpi who found ways round the various bans and burnings. There’s a statue to him in Venice, holding a book.
Moving towards modern times Latham waxes lyrical about Book Row in New York where there were perhaps more books on sale within walking distance than anywhere in the world, ever. Sadly, gentrification brought that to an end. In this chapter the author makes a rare slip, suggesting that one bookseller, the socialist Leon Kramer, “founded the world’s first Yiddish newspaper” from his bookshop. No, Yiddish newspapers started about two hundred years before that and in the year Kramer arrived in America the Yiddish Forverts was selling 120,000 copies daily in the same city.
There are so many bits of this most readable book that I want to quote, but space does not permit. But there’s a nice piece of bookselling nostalgia when he refers to “checking the microfiche (5 x 4 inch celluloid sheets listing books in print which we viewed like holiday slides on a device which most customers called ‘the computer’, although it was just a monitor-shaped box with a light bulb inside).” Booksellers of my vintage thought this was cool and modern.
Ross Bradshaw
The Bookseller’s Tale is available here (and in all good bookshops) fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/the-booksellers-tale/

Cold Warriors: writers who waged the literary Cold War by Duncan White (Little, Brown £25)

It must have been strange working at Little, Brown and to edit, proof-read and publish pages 300-302 of this book where the company is reported as squashing the publishing of Howard Fast’s Spartacus, a dispute that forced out Angus Cameron, the firm’s editor-in-chief. Fast was a popular left wing novelist whose books – like Spartacus – were political as well as being racy. Eventually he self-published the book as no other publisher would take him. Fast was a target, and would end up in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He would also discover that his babysitter was an FBI agent and his house was bugged. This was 1951 and writers like Fast had been taking sides in the Cold War. He took the side of Russia.
Fast was a catch. His Freedom Road, published in 1944, “had sold 30 million copies in ten years and had been translated into eighty-two languages”. (This was a novel about a group of former slaves in reconstruction America which could be popular currently, but the paperback is £30.99 from an academic publisher.)
Fast was one of the organisers of the Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace, one of a bewildering number of organisations and conferences with harmless names that pulled in writers from this side or that. One of the names was the Congress for Cultural Freedom. The CCF operated internationally and was eventually found to be funded by the CIA and in turn organised the funding of literary magazines worldwide which advanced the cause of Western democratic freedom. Often they were good magazines. In Uganda, Transition published “important work by Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiongo” and in South America Mundo Nuevo “helped popularise the writers of the Latin American boom, including Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez”. In Britain it was Encounter, edited by Stephen Spender. Few, if any, of the authors knew that their pay came from the CIA – nor, in the case of Encounter, did its editor. Spender was horrified to discover his magazine was so funded. He resigned in 1966, donated money that he had earned and never read a word of the magazine again.
In the West writers might be used, abused, lose contracts, gain contracts but it was a lot tougher on the other side when stepping out of line could result in a bullet (Isaac Babel), exclusion (Anna Akhmatova) or what was almost a public imprisonment (Boris Pasternak). These last were just three of many writers abused under Stalin. After the Thaw – was this the only period in history named after a novel? – the USSR relaxed, a bit, but the threat was always there. In 1966 Dmitri Eremin gave the Soviet writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yulii Daniel what could only be described as a bad review in Izvestia, describing them as “werewolves” who “spatter on to paper all that is most vile and filthy”. One month later they were on what became a world famous trial. Daniel included in his defence a roll call of writers murdered by the Soviet state – Babel, Mandelstam, Bruno Jasienski, Ivan Katayev, Koltsov, Tretyakov, Kvitko, Markish.* For his trouble, Daniel was given five years in a hard labour camp, Sinyasvky got seven. At least they lived.
Some of the writers covered in the book were desperate not to take sides. The Black American novelist Richard Wright could not bear to live in racist America, decamping to Paris, yet could not bear the way the Communist Party tried to exploit his community and himself. He died a tragic figure, broken by the fray.
Cold Warriors is a gripping read, though its structure is awkward. There is no linear narrative and chapters on one writer or group of writers often end on a cliffhanger leading you to either flick ahead to continue their story or move straight into the life of another writer or group of writers, often within another country. Duncan White (correctly) has a go at Howard Fast for overwriting for a popular audience, but White himself can get a bit carried away with the drama. The chapter “Koestler Berlin, 1950” starts “Arthur Koestler recognised this was his moment. As he approached the lectern, he looked out over the crowd, some fifteen thousand strong, knowing that they were eagerly anticipating what he had to say. He was the undoubted star of the Congress of Cultural Freedom and he knew it.”
Star he was, but White reminds us that Koestler
was out of his head half the time on Benzedrine and alchohol – and that he was a sexual abuser. A lot of the good guys, depending on which side you were on, were not exactly good guys. The Jewish Howard Fast showed no concern for the Jewish writers murdered by Stalin.
Those who came out of this period best were those in the middle, who did their best, Spender, Wright, Mary McCarthy – people we would now call public intellectuals – not always getting it right but who were for neither Washington nor Moscow, but for something far better.
Cold Warriors is available, post free, from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk
Ross Bradshaw
*The latter two were among those murdered by Stalin in 1952, whose work Five Leaves included in our From Revolution to Repression: Soviet Yiddish Writing from 1917-1952.