Book Review of Old Baggage by Lissa Evans
This is an utter treat of a read that should not just be dismissed as ''yet another suffragette book' or 'a quick beach read.' There is no doubt that is incredibly accessible and a quick read, but the content, of Old Baggage, whilst on the surface whimsical, is moving, insightful and serious.
The protagonist of Old Baggage is Matilda Simpkin (Mattie), whoo in her youth was a militant suffragette. We meet her in late middle-age where she is searching for purpose in life and is determined to keep society moving forward progressively. She is appalled by the lack of political knowledge and interest the younger generation of women seem to have. The issues in Old Baggage are contemporary; the text explores gender expectations, loyalty, the signficance of social class, It is a novel I would definitely recommend to my girls or myself when I was younger. the rise of facism and much more. In fact,, there is little linked to womanhood that isn't considered. It is fascinating to observe how society has and hasn't moved on and a treat to gain insight into the suffragette movement from an insider (abeit a fictonal one!).
Mattie is a flawed character, who makes many mistakes during the telling of the story, but she is impossible not to love. Somehwere between a PE mistress, and a philosopher she refuses to be pigeon-holed and owns her errors; she is a go-getter and full of boundless enenrgy. My own favour charater is the Flea (Flossie Lee) who tempers Mattie's exuberance perfectly and is wise and profound.
The humour in some of the exchanges between Mattie and Lee had me laughing out loud, and the humility in the apology letters from Mattie to Lee was hugely moving.
Book Discussion Questions for Old Baggage
Explore the signficanceof the title Od Baggage?
Who was your favourite character in the book and why?
Did you find the book realistic? If so why, if not why not?
Had Mattie not cheated what do you think would have happened to the Amazons?
ow signficant is 'social class' in the novel? Ida feels that everything comes easy to those from the upper classes with wealth. Do you agree?
Look around your bookclub members? Who do you think is most like Mattie and why? Don't say anything you might regret!
Ida's journey to becoming a nurse, arguably has an element of Eliza Doolittle about it? Did you find her story believable. If not which parts specifically were you not convinced by?
What do you think would happen to Mattie and the child next?
How much sympathy did you have for Ida leaving the Amazons and instead joining the Empire Youth League?
Do you think that Lissa Evan's rather gung ho retelling of Mattie's arrests and the hunger strikes undermined the seriousness of what the suffragetes and suffragists went through? Or is she reflecting, perhaps a coping strategy that Mattie might have used to manage the trauma of her time imprisoned?
What is your opinion of Mattie's neice Inez?
Bookclub Questions for Old Baggage (if you haven't read the book!)
Do you think you would have been part of the suffragette movement?
Mattie was blind to the flaws in her brother's personality, especially his lechery. In your experience do you think family members are far more forgiving of the weaknesses of the male members of the family than tehy are the female members?
Mattie uses letter writing as a means of expressing herself calmly and rationally, for example she writes three letters to Florrie. Which do you prefer, written communication or face to face chat when communicating something difficult.
Mattie was able to easily walk into a role teaching languages, despite having no experience and, I think, no qualifications. Presumably once in the classroom she was left to teach in whatever style suited her. Do you think teaching is too prescriptive these days?
The book begins in 1928, How have things changed and stayed the same for women since then?
Emmeline Pankhurst was seen, by some, including Mattie as betrating the Suffragette course by moving to France and running a tea shop.. Considering everything she had been through do you think this is fair?
After Mattie realises that she has treated Florrie badly she says to her, something along the lines of the 'do quite well together' (I can't remember the exact quote? Explore what the ingredients of a good relationship are? Do you think you could live and rub along with a platonic partner as well as you could with someone with whom you were in a romantic relationship?
Summing up Old Baggage by Lissa Evans
This is an absolute gem of a book. The whimsical writing style is joyful. The only danger of it is that it may distract readers into not taking seriously enough the issues explored. I have had this book on my shelf a long time; I even thought I had probably read it and it had failed to make a lasting impression. How wrong I was. As a bookclub read it will likely provoke peels of laughter, anecdotes about grannies and great grannies own involvement in the sufragette movement, along with plenty of brandy (actually probably replace brandy with wine or gin) drinking as the bookclub members raise a glass to Mattie and the Flea!
Book Review of Cilka's Journey - sequel of the Tattooist of Auschwitz
In Cilka’s Journey, the sequel of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Helen Morris explains how Lale, that tattooist survivor of the first story, revealed to her that Cilka was the bravest person he knew in the camp. This left Morris with a whole new life-story that needed telling. As many of Morris’s readers also wanted to know what had happened to Cilka, she researched and wrote about what happened to Cilka after the end of the war. Morris had a limited amount of factual information to draw upon, but used what she and researchers found to weave a historical memoir/historical account of Cilka’s life story. Some parts Morris changed in order to preserve the anonymity of some of the survivors so the finished novel is a hybrid of historical fact and fiction.
When we meet Cilka, introduced to us, in the Tattooist of Auschwitz Cilka is repeatedly raped by two senior SS officers. Cilka had entered the camp when she was only 16 an, in her own words, did what she needed to do in order to survive. She had accepted the advances of the SS officers as a life saving strategy and consequently received favours and some privileges in the camp. Ultimately Cilka hadn’t any choice in having been singled out by the officers, but nevertheless felt great shame about how she had survived. From what I recall from reading the Tattooist of Auschwitz (it was a while ago now) she had the additional role of hut leader and worked with the guards in loading the women onto the trucks that would take them to the gas chambers. In this role she feigned toughness -speaking and acting harshly towards her fellow Jewish inmates as a cover up, so that they would actually be spared from receiving far worse barbaric treatment from the male guards than that she administered. How a reader feels about Cilka’s actions, I guess, determines how they will feel about the sequel novel, which traces Cilka’s life, post Auschwitz during the ten years she spent sentenced to hard labour in the Gulag Camp. She had been sentenced as a traitor to Slovakia for sleeping with the Nazis and served time amongst political prisoners, desperate women stealing to feed their families and political dissidents.
On the one hand as a novel Cilka’s Journey is frequently moving, powerful and heart-breaking. We learn of further gang rapes, cruel conditions, mothers separated from their children and in-fighting between the inmates leading to solitary confinement in inhumane conditions. We follow Cilka’s life as she was once again singled out and trained to become a nurse to the other prisoners. Rather like Kristin Hanna’s The Nightingale the writing is very accessible and is a page-turner. I defy any reader to no not care what happens to Cilka at the end of the novel. On the other hand the character portrayal is, and perhaps it has to be, quite one-dimensional. The question of ‘right and wrong’ in the novel is clear and obvious, but I feel that opportunities are missed to really develop the protagonist’s personality and those she has contact with. The bullies’ behaviour is excused and explained away as inevitably being part and parcel of having to endure such hardship and quickly forgiven, as shown through the portrayal of Hannah. To be fair to the author, the characters are presented as ‘closed up’, for all kinds of reasons, Cilka, can’t talk about her own past, so perhaps it is the reader who is at fault for wanting more. It is difficult to pinpoint how this ‘closed up’ feeling manifests itself, but, perhaps through the considerable use of the telling of how the characters feel and how the reader should feel towards them comes across as stifling.
As the story traces Cilka’s life, where she served two thirds of her sentence before being released during Khrushchev’s regime, the reader is left in no doubt of the author’s own sympathy towards Cilka. This is fair but in some respects this lack of ambiguity presented makes the story seem flatter than it might otherwise. As a style of writing this is fine for a historical account, but less grabbing for a memoir The text can come over across as didactic and almost seems to discourage the reader from thinking independently about the issues explored.
Book Discussion Questions for Cilka's Journey
Cilka finds herself unable to avoid being singled out in both Auschwitz and The Gulag. Why do you think this is?
Explore the portrayal of Cilka’s character. What are her strengths and weaknesses? How realistic is the portrayal of her?
Cilka falls in love, without ever really speaking to Alexandre. This part of the account is complete fiction. Do you find the ending realistic?
How was your knowledge and understanding of the post war Russian regime developed through reading the text? Did you learn anything that surprised you?
Would you have sacrificed your chance of freedom, as Cilka did, so that Josie wasn’t separated from her child?
How successful a sequel to The Tattooist of Auschwitz did you find Cilka’s Journey?
What questions would you ask Cilka if she was in the room with us today?
Cilka was responsible for putting her mother onto the truck that would go on to take her to the gas chamber? Do you think this was the correct decision to make?
The book is part historical fiction and part memoir. The author is clearly very sympathetic towards Cilka. What is your own attitude towards Cilka and why?
Which of the women in Cilka’s hut do you have the least sympathy for and why?
Which book do you prefer – the Tattooist of Auchwitz or Cilka’s journey. Discuss the reasons for your preferences.
Book Club Questions for Cilka's Journey (if you haven't read the book.)
Cilka is portrayed as having had to be extremely cruel to be kind. Are there any other literary figures or real people who have had to take on the persona of ‘monster’ to actually protect the weak. Would you be able to take on this role?
How effective a tool do you find memoir or historical fiction as a means of gaining insight into historical eras or movements? Discuss the reasons for your opinion.
Reading stories of war and suffering is inevitably upsetting and disturbing. Why are we drawn to books like this?
What other books and TV shows do you think successfully explore the hardship of war, confinement and prison?
Sometimes in Cilka’s Journey it is the tiniest act of kindness that make life bearable for the prisoners. Do you have a personal story about a ‘small kindness’ that you’ve either received or given?
Cilka’s Journey is a straightforward linear narrative pulling out highlights (or lowlights) of her life, which quite factually shows what happens to her. Explore as a reading group what you feel a book’s primary purpose is and how this influences your group’s book choice preferences.
Summing up of Cilka's Journey by Heather Morris.
I resisted reading Cilka’s Journey, the sequel to The Tattooist of Auschwitz for quite a while, as I was afraid it wouldn’t be as good as the original story. Now I’m finished with the reading I am unsure about whether it did match up. Cilka’s Journey is a page-turner, and we do get some insight into her life. I'd definitely recommend it and it is a great read. I'd put it on par with other books I've reviewed for sure. Overall I’m not completely convinced, though, by Morris’ portrayal of Cilka as selfless and giving person whose main purpose, during the time in the Gulag, was to make life more bearable for others. Cilka’s shame never leaves her and the writer is at pains to repeatedly remind the reader that Cilka is blameless for her earlier life choices. I think the key message being portrayed is that for the vast majority survival is everything. Morris does clearly show that people have great ability to be both monsters and angels. but in doing so it does feel like the reader is being presented with selected highlights, which they are encouraged to unquestionably accept as ‘the truth’.