Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain

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Read 09/01/2022-27/01/2022

Rating 4 stars

I like Sathnam Sanghera. He makes difficult, emotive subject matter accessible. His documentary about the Amritsar massacre led me to Kim Wagner’s book Amritsar 1919. I haven’t yet watched his Empire State of Mind series, but I reserved his book Empireland somewhere in the distant past of 2021 and it arrived from the library at the start of this year.

Empireland begins with a set of acknowledgements that include the following statement, “… I’m going to spend as little time as possible fretting about definitions: almost every term used in discussion of empire, from ‘colony’ to ‘commonwealth’ to ‘colonialism’, to say nothing of ‘race’ and ‘racism’, can be contested, their meanings changing over time.” Sanghera goes on to say that immersion in definitions produces long academic books, and his ambition in writing Empireland was to create the opposite.

He has succeeded. Empireland is Sanghera’s personal exploration of who he is, as a British Sikh, and how empire has created the environment he grew up in, as well as influenced the language and attitudes everyone in Britain has, across race, gender, religion and politics. Continue reading

The Radetzky March

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Read 02/01/2022-09/01/2022

Rating 5 stars

Onwards in my European literary tour to Austria. Joseph Roth was born in a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that is now in Ukraine, but studied in Vienna and is considered to be an Austrian writer. I have his novel The Radetzky March in a Folio edition, which is no longer in print.

The Radetzky March is considered to be a political masterpiece that draws parallels between the elevation and subsequent fall of a military family and the decline and eventual collapse of the Habsburg monarchy. The focus of the novel is the Trotta family, Austro-Hungarians of Slovenian origin, the patriarch of whom rescues Emperor Franz Joseph I from death during the Battle of Solferino. This earns him an elevation to the nobility and the title Baron Trotta von Sipolje.

It’s a funny book that captures the camaraderie of military life, the ridiculous nature of civil service life, the generational changes in parent-child relationships, and the curious rigidity of friendship between men of a certain class. Having studied the causes of the First World War at school, it also provided a different, more social context to the political one I garnered from O Level text books in the 1980s.

It’s also a poetic book, in the way Roth describes landscape, seasons, thoughts and emotions. His turn of phrase is perfection. I loved the lightness of his touch, the humour and fondness for his characters, and the way he skewers the social structures of the time, while simultaneously mourning their passing. Continue reading

In the Pines

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Read 01/01/2022

Rating 4 stars

Paul Scraton is a British writer who lives and works in Berlin. I’ve read his psychogeographical novel Built on Sand, which is still one of the best books I’ve read in recent years, and his walking travelogue Ghosts on the Shore, that tells the history of Germany’s Baltic coast via a personal cartography.

I’ve been eager to read his fiction collaboration with German photographer Eymelt Sehmer since it was announced by the publisher back in spring. In the Pines continues Scraton’s exploration of our relationship with landscape and what it says about us. Continue reading

Six Degrees of Separation: From Rules of Civility to Daisy Miller

It’s 2022, so a Happy New Year to you. 1 January was also the first Saturday of the month, making it time for Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.

Our starting book this month is one that I included in my January chain two years agoRules of Civility by Amor Towles. This is a book I read before I started this blog. It was recommended to me by a good friend in New York, and I loved it.

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The Trial

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Read 28/12/2021-31/12/2021

Rating 4 stars

The Trial is my Czechia book on my European literary tour. I’m still at the beginning of my journey with Kafka. I read The Metamorphosis a fair few years ago, which I loved and have re-read, and then I bought a copy of The Castle from a book fair in Hebden Bridge. I struggled with it while reading, finding it quite soporific, but in the months after reading it, found myself still thinking about it. It’s taken me seven years to pick up my next Kafka, though. Continue reading

The Equestrienne

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Read 28/12/2021

Rating 5 stars

The Equestrienne is a novella that I picked up speculatively, prompted by Meytal Radzinski’s Women in Translation initiative. Every day during 2021, Meytal has tweeted about a non-Anglophone female writer whose work may or may not, more often not, have been translated into English. A different writer every day. It’s quite a task and a great source of authors for anyone wanting to broaden their reading.

Uršuľa Kovalyk is a Slovakian writer from Košice who now lives in Bratislava. She campaigns for women’s rights, and is the director of the Theatre With No Home, which provides opportunities for homeless and disabled actors.

Košice is close to Slovakia’s border with Hungary. I thought I would visit there on my virtual tour of Europe, rather than the Slovakian capital. Continue reading

The Invisible Bridge

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Read 08/12/2021-27/12/2021

Rating 4 stars

An unplanned side trip to Hungary with my next book. On Margaret’s Six Degrees chain for December 2021, I spied a title that interested me. The Invisible Bridge is a novel about the experiences of Hungarian Jews following Hitler’s rise to power and during the Second World War.

Author Julie Orringer is American, so the book doesn’t fit my loose rule for my European literary tour of reading books by authors from the countries I virtually visit. A large amount of the book is set in Paris, too, with a brief period in Ukraine. Continue reading

The President’s Last Love

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Read 28/11/2021-07/12/2021

Rating 3 stars

I started reading Andrey Kurkov’s books almost 20 years ago, starting with the first of his Penguin books, about an investigative journalist and the penguin he adopts from a closing zoo. I enjoyed his satire of life in a former Soviet state and its struggles with a post independence relationship with Russia. The President’s Last Love, translated by George Bird, is a more ambitious work that spans four decades and explores the trajectory of one man from street gang member to catering manager to president.

Continue reading

Six Degrees of Separation: From Ethan Frome to That Old Ace in the Hole

December is here and, as ever, I’m taking part in the Six Degrees of Separation meme, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.

Suitably for the month of December in the Northern hemisphere, if not her southern one, Kate has chosen Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome as our starting book. It’s a book I’ve read twice, once more than 25 years ago, when I first discovered Wharton as a writer, and then again around the time that the film adaptation starring Patricia Arquette and Liam Neeson was released. It’s a book that I love, my favourite of the works of Wharton that I’ve read.

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Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

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Read 20/11/2021-28/11/2021

Rating 11 stars

I eyed up Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead for a long time after its publication, resisting its simple but elegant dark blue cover each time I saw it on display in a bookshop. I finally succumbed earlier this year and now my European book tour brings me to Poland and it’s reached the top of my To Read pile. Continue reading