The Pianist – Wladyslaw Szpilman
I like to think that I can keep my emotions in check. There are rarely any films I cry at other than The Notebook and dare I say it The Lion King, where I become an emotional wreck and ask who in God’s name decided it would be an excellent idea to kill off Mufasa. I’m even more a steel heart when it comes to books; the only novel I have shed a tear at is Khaled Hosseini’s tale of the harrowing Afghan regime in ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’. However I can now add The Pianist to the list of tear jerkers.
I’m sad to say that I probably would not have read the book had it not been for my boss lending it to me. I remember being forced to watched the film in an RE class at school when I was about 14. As all individuals at this age I don’t think I understood the full severity of the film’s contents and instead thought it would be a good idea to kick the boy’s chair who sat in front of me (I have never been a good flirt).
Again, I will admit when I picked up The Pianist it took me a while to get into it as I find it hard to read a true story of someone’s sufferings. However, one evening this week and thirty pages in I could not put it down, I told myself at the beginning of every chapter this would be the last chapter I read before I went to sleep. This happened about six times. I longed to know what was to happen to Wladyslaw Szpilman and his family.
If for some reason you are not familiar with The Pianist it is the true story of a Polish Jew’s fight for survival against the oppressive Nazis during World War II. I lost count of the number of times Szpilman nearly met his end from being starved for three days outside in the oppressive heat – the end of this form of torture resulted in his family being taken to concentration camps whilst he was left to at the mercy of the Nazi’s occupying Warsaw – to hiding in the attic in his friend’s apartment whilst the German’s searched his building.
But it was the German soldier who helped Szpilman who is the guardian angel in this tragedy. Szpilman is past the point of starvation as he hides in the attic of the apartment when Captain Hosenfeld finds him. The solider brings the Polish man food and states he will keep his silence about Szpilman’s hiding place. The latter knows that if it were not for the brave German man he would be dead. The tragedy of the book – and what made me run for the Kleenex – is the ending; Szpilman outlives the war and over many years’ frantically tries to search for his life saviour only to find that the Germans are holding him captive for helping Jews, he eventually dies at the hands of them.
The inclusion of Hosenfeld’s diary extracts at the end of the book depicts him as a rational man who has the misfortune of being a German during this era. We tend to think of all Germans during this period as murders and the epitome of evil but what Szpilman’s story tells is that we must not generalise as there were Germans who did not want to fight but had to due to fear and force. This message along with the empowering tale of one’s man survival against the odds is something we can all learn from, even in today’s society.
Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend – Sara Manning
We’ve all had a useless boyfriend at some point in our lives. From those who feel nauseous as soon as the word ‘commitment’ is uttered, to those who think they can get away with sleeping with other women. The main protagonist, Hope, in Sara Manning’s Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend has to deal with both these deal breakers.
Not another book centred on a weeping girlfriend trying to seek revenge on an ex-boyfriend, I hear you cry. Essentially it is but there is something about this novel, especially the ending, which differs from the usual romantic fiction prototype. It also helps that the two main characters are uber cool; Jack works as a designer for a magazine and constantly gives freebies to Hope, they also do things like go to gigs and host dinner parties.
Hope has been with Jack for thirteen years, they’ve grown up together from first kisses to moving into together and planning their future. Their mothers are best friends and have been planning the pair’s wedding ever since they first became an item. However the longed for fairytale unravels during a disastrous dinner party Hope organises where she walks in on Jack kissing her amazingly perfect best friend Susie. From this point the book digresses into a counselling session as we learn of Hope’s ups and downs as she tries to repair her already fractured relationship with Jack. We are subjected to Hope’s numerous hangovers and demolishment of entire boxes of chocolates. I lost count at the number of times they broke up and then decided to get back together. There were occassions where I began to lose patience with the pair and just wanted to hit them.
Ever the optimist I did think Hope and Jack would live happily ever after and was surprised at the open ending Manning gave Hope, a rather refreshing take on the stiff and stereotypical chic lit genre.
What also makes the novel very readable is the hilarious secondary characters. Hope’s pushy mother seemed to have no concern for Hope’s feelings instead blaming her daughter for Jack’s adultery and believing it would kill Hope’s grandmother if the pair did not get married. Wilson, Susie’s ex boyfriend and eventually Hope’s shoulder to cry on, is described asso achingly cool that he appears boring but by the end of the book he becomes the only sane character in all the shenanigans.
The book is a must read for those who want something light hearted and it will definitely be staying on my bookshelf (aka the top of my wardrobe). A word of warning though, the novel is predominantly set during Christmas time, so do not make the same mistake I did and read it during a heat wave as you will be longing for mince pies and to hear that god awful Cliff Richard song.
A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
With the exception of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Joanne Harris’ Chocolat, I rarely give up on a book, with Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending I came close.
I was allured by the mysterious and dark front cover and the fact it was emblazoned with ‘Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2011’. What’s not to like I thought. In this case you should definitely NOT judge a book by its cover.
From the first few pages it felt like a Modernist text and something that I would have been made to read as part of my degree and as that ship has long since sailed, I did not want to be reminded of some of the drudgery I had to read.
The story is an autobiographical account of Tony, who recounts his privileged school boy days, his first sexual encounters and the ambivalence of new boy Adrian. Tony’s life then descends into chaos when Adrian commits suicide. From this Tony considers his own life, the mistakes he has made and how he wishes things could have been different.
Whilst it can sometimes be comforting to read about a character’s social awkwardness and anxiety such as the endearing individuals in Brideshead Revisited, I found myself getting mad at Tony. He struggles to differentiate between past and present as he moronically emails his ex-girlfriend Veronica everyday like a love struck teenager. He also questions even the most mundane aspects of life such as why chips are called hand cut if they are not actually cut by an individual but a machine.
At times, as pompous as this sounds, I felt I had a better outlook on life than the sixty year old Tony; sometimes we should sit back and not question every minute detail of the world, unsolved mysteries are sometimes beautiful. The final line in the novel: ‘There is great unrest’ suggests that Tony will never truly realise this.
I have recently turned twenty two (boohoo) and I had absolutely no connection to Tony or his thoughts, maybe if I was older I could appreciate Tony’s nostalgic view on life however as I am just starting a new chapter in my life I pitied him for being so confused and sombre. To put it frankly I could not wait for this book to end.
The Shadow Year by Hannah Richell
I have finally read the second of the 136423890 books I was kindly given by the lovely people at Orion Publishing when I completed two weeks of work experience for them back in March. With the pile of unread books stacked on top of my wardrobe it is always a hard choice to decide what I should read next.
I have to admit The Shadow Year was not initially one of the books I most wanted to read but by the end I felt as though the main characters Kat and Lila were my best friends.
Firstly, I thought the book was aimed at more of an older age group, which put me off. However once I got past the first fifty pages, I was completely hooked reading hundreds of pages at a time.
The story is told from dual perspectives. We are first introduced to a grieving Lila and her husband in modern day London who are trying to deal with the death of their prematurely born baby and the devastation this has brought to their fragile marriage. Lila is mysteriously left a cottage in the Peak District. Intrigued, she visits the abandoned and desolate place for a change of scenery much to her husband’s horror. She decides to renovate the property and what should have been a small project to help her grief becomes all consuming.
Running parallel to this is Kat’s story, set at the beginning of the 1980s. Along with her friends, she has just finished university and lusts over ring leader of the group; Simon. After one final hurrah together at an empty house in the middle of nowhere, they decide to stay there and become self-sufficient by living off the land. Simon suggests they speak to no one about the house, yet Kat ignores this and tells her younger sister Freya, a decision which will have lifelong consequences for everyone involved.
There are so many twists in the story that it is hard to summarise Richell’s work. The way the plot unwraps and seeing how the two worlds collide, makes this book a perfect candidate to be turned into a film or television programme. The mirroring of events and emotions between the different eras was cleverly done. I could not read this book fast enough as I wanted to know what the connection was between Kat and Lila. The ending is not at all predictable and this is what I loved about the novel.