I have begun to see posts about books that people have read and enjoyed in 2021. Much of my reading has been toward a research project, but there were other books too. Unfortunately, I read very little fiction in the past year. I will try to rectify that in the year to come. Here goes with my list for 2021:
A Woman of No Importance, by Sonia Purnell tells the story of Virginia Hall, an American woman who worked in wartime France to organize resistance to the Nazi invaders. She was brazenly courageous and effective in her role, although her male colleagues and superiors mostly refused to acknowledge her skills. After the war, she was disenchanted when the Americans and other allies promptly embraced many former Nazi enemies in the interests of fighting communism.
Red Diaper Baby: A Memoir, by James Laxer and The Strangest Dream: Canadian Communists, the Spy Trials, and the Cold War, by Merrily Weisbrod. Both Laxer and Weisbrod were raised in communist households, she in Montreal and he in Toronto and Montreal. It was an almost cultish existence, where their parents, along with most of their extended families and friends were either communists or sympathizers. These were idealistic people with a desire to create a better world, but they were betrayed by the Communist International, which was unfailingly subservient to Moscow and Stalin. Communist Party leaders in Canada toed the party line, even after Stalin’s atrocities were revealed. In the end, both the Laxer and Weisbrod families left the party, as did most of their friends and relatives.
The Joy of Writing: A Guide for Writers Disguised as a Literary Memoir, by Pierre Berton. I reread this book published in 2003 by the industrious Berton who proudly lists his 30 books of non-fiction, not to mention his picture books and anthologies, books for young readers and even a novel, using the pen name Lisa Kroniuk. Berton describes this book as “part literary memoir, part practical guide, part dissertation and part advice to the bookworm.” He gleefully recounts how he worked and reworked his material for sale in various media, and how he was always inventive and sometimes shameless in his marketing. What I enjoyed most in this re-reading were his hints about writing non-fiction.
Finding Refuge in Canada: Narratives of Dislocation, an anthology edited by George Melnyk and Christina Parker. This book is a collection of personal narratives and includes 14 contributions by people in Canada who were refugees, refugee advocates, front-line workers, private sponsors, and civil servants working on refugee issues. I moderated an online launch for this book, which was held on April 15.
Lassie Come Home. I read this 1940 classic by English novelist Eric Knight to my five-year-old grandson at a time in 2021 when in-person Kindergarten classes were suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the story, the collie Lassie is sold by a poor family and taken by her new owner far away into the Scottish Highlands. Lassie braves many difficulties and dangers to make her way back to her young master Joe Carraclough. I had read this story to my two daughters about 30 years ago. This time I read it to my grandson using What’s App on my smart phone. I was in Ottawa, and he was in Toronto.
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder and Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, by Tony Judt. These were both re-reads of European history classics. Snyder writes about the mass murder carried out by Hitler and Stalin. Hitler targeted the Jews and anyone he considered non-Aryan. He thought all Slavs were inferior and wanted their lands for his policy of lebensraum, meaning more living space for Germans. Stalin specialized in executing his own people, inducing the Ukrainian famine, and working people to death in the Gulag. Judt’s book is an encyclopedic history of Europe from 1945 until 2005. Sadly, he died in 2010 so there will be no update.
Endpapers: A Family Story of Books, War, Escape, and Home, by Alexander Wolff. A long-time writer for Sports Illustrated, Wolff took retirement and moved to Berlin for a year to research his family history. His grandfather Kurt Wolff was a well-known publisher who fled from Germany to New York in 1933, where he and his wife founded Pantheon Books. Kurt left behind a son behind in Germany. Niko ended up serving on the Eastern front, but eventually he made his way to the US as well, where he worked as a chemist. Niko would say very little to his son Alexander about his past. Niko’s mother was a member of the wealthy Merck family, who owned a pharmaceutical firm of the same name and Alexander researches their ties to the Nazis. These were both prominent families so there exists a good deal of documentation; but Alexander’s research skills are impressive.
Paula: A Memoir, by Isabel Allende. She is an exceptional writer of fiction, but here Allende writes about a long vigil with her daughter Paula, who in 1991 became ill with a disorder known as porphyria and lapsed into a coma for months before her death. Allende decided to write about the tragedy in real time, mostly as a mechanism for survival. She writes to Paula and writes about writing to Paula as her condition deteriorates. The book is gripping and sad, and as a family memoir it cuts a wide swatch through modern Chilean history; but I decided that with Allende, I prefer her fiction to memoir.
East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity”, and The Ratline: Love, Lies, and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive. Both books were written by Philippe Sands, and I read them in sequence. Sands is a London-based human rights lawyer. In East West Street, he weaves together the biographical histories of two Jewish lawyers born in or near the city of Lviv in modern day Ukraine. Both studied at the law school there, although in different years. Later, as prominent legal scholars who came to live in the US and Britain respectively, both were advisors in the allied prosecution of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. Hersch Lauterpacht developed the concept of crimes against humanity, and Rafael Lemkin that of genocide. A third strand in the book is that of Sands’ maternal grandfather, who had been born near Lviv, but moved to Vienna at the outbreak of the First World War, and then to Paris after the German annexation of Austria in 1938. Virtually none of the grandfather’s family survived the systematic murder of Jews by the Nazis in Ukraine after 1941. A final strand in the book follows Hans Frank, head of the Nazi-imposed government in occupied Poland, which at that time included Ukrainian Galicia. Frank was instrumental in building concentration camps and ordering the murder of tens of thousands of people, including members of Sands’ extended family. In Nuremburg, Frank was found guilty of crimes against humanity and hanged. Sands is brilliant at research; lawyers would call it gathering evidence.
In writing this book, Sands came upon the name of Otto Wachter, who was the civilian governor of Galicia during the Nazi occupation, and an accomplice of Hans Frank. Wachter eluded capture after the war. This book reconstructs his daily life as a senior Nazi, his life as a fugitive, and how he came to his end in Rome in 1949 as he was planning to flee to Argentina.
Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, by Robert Caro. He has spent much of his professional life working on a multi-volume biography of US President Lyndon Johnson. But in this book, as the title suggests, he shows how he goes about his research, interviewing and writing. He and his wife even went to live in the hill country in Texas, where Johnson was born, so that Caro could better understand the formative influences on the future president. Caro has much to offer those of us who are less thorough than he is.
In Search of Almighty Voice: Resistance and Reconciliation, by Bill Waiser. In 1897, a young Cree man named Almighty Voice was killed in what is now Saskatchewan by a squad of North-West Mounted Police. His crime had been to kill a settler’s cow, a theft which he later offered to reimburse by providing a horse. He escaped after being arrested and he killed a policeman who tracked him down. That prompted a determined manhunt, but he eluded capture for 19 months. When police finally caught up to him, they used artillery to shell the small grove in which Almighty Voice and two companions had taken refuge. They killed three more of their pursuers before being killed themselves.
Waiser provides the details of what happened but he also analyzes how the narrative surrounding Almighty Voice was created and recreated over the years. This story has special resonance for me because I was born and raised in the area. My prairie village was just 60 kilometres from where Almighty Voice was killed, yet I never heard of these events until I was well into my years at university.
Silverview, by John le Carré. In 2019, I wrote about Agent Running in the Field. I assumed that would be le Carré’s final novel because he died in 2020. This year, however, a slim volume called Silverview appeared posthumously. In an Afterword, le Carré’s son Nick Cornwell writes that his father made him promise that if he died with an unfinished work his son would complete it. Cornwell found Silverview on le Carré’s desk but insists that it was complete and needed only cosmetic edits. Silverview does not have the wide cast of characters and the sweep of earlier le Carré novels such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but it does contain the master’s suspenseful prose and his disillusionment about what has become of the great Western powers.
So this is my selected list for 2021. Looking at it now, I can see very little there that was cheerful, but then much of what people have done to each other is not cheerful either; but it is still important to know about it. In all cases, I learned something about history, and about research and writing. I would be pleased to see your lists or suggested reading. Please leave a comment for me, and I hope you enjoy good reading in 2022.