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’.
What kind of Shakespeare Lover are you?
Everyone who knows me is aware that I am a lover of all things Shakespeare related. In the last few months I’ve been lucky enough to see a few Shakespeare productions. This has been a real bonus of my having spent time in the UK. Swooning at Shakespeare’s sonnets, and having had a huge crush on Hamlet since I was about 16 (when it started Hamlet wasn’t too young for me to have a crush on, but I guess he is now. Gosh that’s sad!) I can’t get enough of the old bard. Such is my desire to share the ‘Shakespeare love’ I have actually recently written a guest post for Nosweatshakespeare.com suggesting strategies to students and teachers about how to approach Shakespeare, so that it is both accessible and enjoyable.
Shakespeare’s Comedy Plays
In actual fact the real magic of Shakespeare is that he has something for everyone. For example it takes a lot to beat a great rom-com. Earlier in the year I was fortunate enough to enjoy just that, when, with my friend Jen, I went to watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe in London. I’ve seen and taught this particular play so often that I really wasn’t expecting it to offer too much new, but it was simply brilliant with wonderful, outlandish visuals and the magnificent Hackney Colliery band opening the action. I, like many others, enjoy a laugh so this excellent use of costume and set along with all the nonsense, farce, innuendo and fun that you’d expect from a rom-com made for a wonderful evening’s entertainment.
If you meet the following criteria I think you would be a lover of Shakespeare’s comedies.
Shakespeare’s History Plays
I guess because I have been a Secondary English teacher for so many years and because Shakespeare has been my bread and butter, it is easy for me to know what particular type of Shakespeare lover I am! History plays are, perhaps with the exception of Henry IV Part 1 (which is arguably a comedy anyway) my least favourite genre. Not so my old Saint Mick of Thana. As a historian these plays are right up his street, so it came as no surprise to learn that he had booked us a surprise a visit to Stratford, over New Year, for us to watch King John.
If you know the plot of King John you’ll understand why it is so seldom produced. The storyline is only really of interest if you give two hoots about who owned what land during the reign of the Plantagenet’s. Despite this the production we saw was very clever and there was plenty to enjoy. This production was the first I’ve seen when a woman (Rosie Sheehy) played the male protagonist role. This provided lots to think about in terms of modern gender actor choices. In actual fact the whole play was an unexpected and insightful exploration of the family dynamic and how a complex mother and son relationship might have affected King John. So whilst the plot is a bit tedious the themes explored were exactly the type of thing I find fascinating. This means that, along with a lovely visit to Ann Hathaway’s cottage (admittedly mainly to restock on a brand of Shakespeare mug which I particularly like) on New Year’s Day we had a lovely trip.
If you meet the following criteria I think you would qualify as a Lover of Shakespeare’s History plays.
Taking a trip back to Stratford reminded me of watching Hamlet at the Globe with Mick and the girls back in 2016. It is such a special play to me that I really wanted them to love it too and it was BRILLIANT. Hamlet was played magnificently by Paapa Essiedu. He captured exactly Hamlet’s despair, which demonstrates itself repeatedly in an outpouring of angst and grief that is simply irresistible! The character Hamlet is a mass of contradictory personality traits from hot-headedness to passive helplessness, to rage, to envy, to plain meanness, to utter desperation and despair. He is indeed a lost soul, but, oh how he expresses himself! It is impossible not to forgive his moodiness, and reflect why this is so.
If, like me, you fit the following criteria you are likely to be a lover of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
The Best Shakespeare Plays
Shakespeare’s tragedies are definitely my go to ‘comfort Shakespeare’, but I guess I will always be a universal lover of Shakespeare. Having had a bit of a Shakespeare Love Fest of late I’m feeling I want to see more and more productions. Last week, having not recently just survived but having actually enjoyed King John, I was enthusiastic about watching Richard III. This time we were back in the Globe, but at one of the side theatres. It was an intimate and extremely successful production, which Mick and I loved. This particular play, is of course so famous that much of the fun is simply waiting to see how the oft-quoted lines will be interpreted and delivered.
Richard, also, like King John was played by a woman, (Sophie Russell) which raised all kinds of gender questions, especially those surrounding gender expectations and violence. It has always been quite easy to argue the case for Richard III being both a tragedy and a history play, but this production was, at times simply hilarious. The presentation of violence and the exploration of what perhaps makes a psychopath or sociopath were actually presented as comedy. The cast were superb in their self-deprecating presentation of less believable parts of Shakespeare, such as the fashion for lengthy death speeches. In addition feminist outrage was displayed with humour and the numerous murders executed with side-slitting aplomb. It was quite simply brilliant.
The truth is that Shakespeare doesn’t date and rather like a good pair of jeans is never out of fashion. Sadly some people’s only experience of Shakespeare has been a very dry reading of text from the page of a cruddy old text in an out-dated English Literature lesson. This is a crying shame and those people are understandably likely to be resistant to revisiting his plays.
Shakespeare is how I imagine smoking might be (though unlike smoking is very good for your health) … perhaps not fun to start with, but truly addictive. I wonder, what kind of Shakespeare lover you are?
Book Review of Between the Stops: The View of My Life from the Top of the Number 12 Bus
This is a great memoir by Sandi Toksvig, but so much of it seemed familiar, that I spent a great deal of my reading time perplexed about whether this is a re-write of an earlier memoir. Is it? The part where Sandi expresses how hurt she was at being hounded by the press, when her and her then partner were new mothers, seemed exactly like something I had already read about. Perhaps it was just an article I'd previously seen.
Sandi Toksvig’s 'Between the Stops is both simple and complex. Simple in its transparency and compex in the depth of personality it portrays. Sandi's exuberance, Her desire for activity and enthusiasm jump off the pages, yet she is clearly also capable of deep thought. calmness (a little anyway) and reflection. Her warmth and fun-loving nature are always apparent,, but so is her sensitivity and ability to be hurt. This open humanity plays a large part in the book's appeal.
As both the title and the preface suggest Between the Stops is quite a random and unsual memoir. The structure is irreigular and deliberately challenges the conventions of an autobiography portrating a birth, childhood, middle-age and old-age. Instead it jumps around randomly using bus-stops and sightings along the route covered, almost as a cue for 'memory association memoir writing'.
I have to admit that I didn't love all the hilstorical information about London, (though it was well reseached). as It felt to somewhat tagged on to the wonderful anecdotes and reflection that is at the book's core. It felt as if Toksvig, having settled on structuring the book around the bus journey then needed to afford plenty of attention to the places that she made her associations from.
Between the Stops is extremely readable and extremely honest. Sandi opens up about her political stance and ideology, the homophobic behaviour she has experienced and the haphazard nature of her career path. If you enjoy watching Sandi on the TV you'll most probably also enjoy reading her words; She is a quirky person and it is a quirky book! It is impossible to not respect Sandi as she is continually looking to improve the world. I don't accept some criticisms levied against her that she soulnds sanctimonious or trite. She doesn't
Ultimately, Sandi writes beautifully and unlike many memoirs (particularly those of celebrities) there isn't a sense of the book having been ghost written or even worse badly written! Overall, I like Sandi’s original approach to memoir writing. Her life is outlandish in its adventure, yet predictable and full of compassion. Sandi lives in an area of London for the sake of her wife being close to her teenage daughter, not because she wants to be there.. I like that about her. She is angry, funny, kind and emotional. If you do choose to read this book you will be left with the sense of having made a friend. What a privilege it would be to actually catch the No 12 bus and have a chat with her.
Book Discussion Questions for Between the Stops
Sandi is trying to tell her life story whilst not being restricted by traditional conventions of memoir writing. Is she successful. Discuss?
What was the most interesting thing you learned about Sandi Toksvig's life during your reading of the book?
How would you have reacted to almost being sent down from Cambridge for being gay, but being allowed to stay because you were clever and gay?
Sandi Toksvig takes great delight in retelling small and every day events. For example, she tells the anecdote of the lady who likes her, not because she is funny, but because she, like, the lady, is of indeterminate size. What did you find the funniest story in the book?
Sandi cites numerous examples of inequality in the book. What did you learn about her political views? Did they surprise you?
Sandi was disappointed that Miss Macdonald didn't run away to pain but instead joined a silent order of Carmelites. What is she trying to show us through this humourous anecdote?
Sandi shares very little about anyone other than herself in this book. Does this diminish its validity as a memoir?
Book Club Questions for Between the Stops (if you haven't read the book)
Sandi demonstrated during her first job in the theatre that she was prepared to do everything from sweeping the stage to fixing the lights. What is the most unusal job that you've ever had?
When Sandi's university college finally apologized for their homophobic behavour she was able to forgive them. Are you able to forgive and forget, or at least forgive?
Sandi would be a great dinner party companion. Who else would you invite along to have dinner with her and you?
Sandi talks quite openly about how 'people were not out' in her day, whereas now they are. What is the bigget social or political change that you've seen in your life time?
When Sandi is accused on the bus of being racist it caused her a great deal of distress as the criticism was unfair and unfounded? Do you have a similar experience to share.
When Sandi presents Great British Bake Off she genuinely cares for the contestants and sheds a tear when they get disqualified. What makes you feel emotional?
Which other celebrity memoir have you enjoyed reading and why?
Sandi frequently travels the Number 12 bus? If you were to use a regular journey to struture your own memoir around, where would you travel to and from?
If you enjoy reading memoirs then you may also be interested in these reviews too.
Book Review of Emma Donoghue's Akin
Emma Donoghue's Akin is a great reading choice for anyone who is interested in exploring family relationships. A passing interest in Science would be an added bonus as there are even amusing Science jokes thrown in as Donaghoe is clearly either very knowledgable about Chemistry or has done her research well. As far as book reviews go, my comments are mixed, but overall favourable.
Akin is a story about an 80 year old, retired Chemistry professor, Noah Selvaggio who reluctantly takes guardianship of his great nephew Michael, whose mother is in jail, possibly for a crime she didn't commit and whose father has died, perhaps of an overdose.
On one level this is a wonderful book. The relationship succesfully shows how despite the two generation gap, Michael and Noah have more in common than either might have imagined. On a slightly more universal level it reveals how change is a good thing and how regeneration of spirit and life interest can appear when it is least expected. In this respect the book is excellent.
Where my observations are less favourable of Emma Donoghue's Akin are regarding the substantial number of unaswered questions and 'maybe' scenarios.) I felt a little bit the same about what happened in the inbetween years of Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale and Testaments!) As mentioned we only get a small insight into what happens to Michael's parents, and there is little to indicate that that this will be thoroughly explored. It feels like a missed opportunity that could have been built into the structure of the book. This is something that I thought might have been explored in the New York Times book review of Akin.
The sub-plot of the story is also full of maybes.. Whilst visiting Nice we are encouraged to join the characters on an exploration of what role Noah's own mother played during the resistance movement of World War 2. Was she a traitor or hero? The unanswered questions here are more acceptable and create a tone of realism, There is no doubting Donaghoe's excellent understanding of this historical period.. (It came as no surprise to learn that she had spent periods of her adult life living in France in this area.)
Other aspects of the exploration, such as Michael's 'tech' expertise, juxtaposed agains Noah's ineptness are not completely convincing. Noah's intellect is such that he is likely to be more than skilled at basic google search. (Perhaps my concern here is more a reflection on myself than necessary!) The representation of the social services organisation also feels a little unconvincing. Would an old man really be able to take an eleven year old boy out of the country so last minute? Perhaps it doesn't really matter, but as a piece of realistic fiction, especially by a writer who is an expert in historical writing, I was not completed convinced.
Book Discussion Questions for Akin by Emma Donoghue
Michael's social worker warns Noah that Michael's behaviour can be challenging? How successfully did Donoghue portray this? What techniques did she employ?
In the story Noah is very distressed when he thinks his mother works as a German spy during World War 2, however, he learns later (spoiler alert) that she actually worked for the resistance movement. Can you find any parallels between this sub-plot and the story of Michael and his own parents?
What are the main themes explored in this story?What similarities of character did Michael and his Great Uncle Noah share?
Throughout the book Noah frequently educates Michael, explaining every day phenomena as Chemistry constructs. He even explains away his dead wife's imaginary verbal interjections in his life. and dismisses them when they don't equate with his desires. How did this enhance or detract from your understandng of character and affect your enjoyment of the story?
In the book Noah realises that Michael is saving him as much as he is saving Michael. He decides to stop smoking and take better care of his health in the hope of increasing his longevity of life. How do you think the unwritten future story of Michael and Noah will pan out?
In the story Donoghue makes several references to class and wealth. Do you think Michael's mum would have been less likely to be in jail if she was of a higher social standing?
What do you think really happened to Amber and Victor?
We learn far more about Noah's thoughts and emotions throughout the story than we do about those of Michael. What adjectives would you use to sum up Michael?
How would the story have been different if Michael had been a girl? Having discussed this explore what this reveals about your pre-existing views on gender and identity.
Do you think Noah made a wise or foolish choice to have Michael move in with him? Is Donaghue making any statement or judgement about Noah's and Joan's prior life and lifestyle choices? If so what?
Book Club Questions for Emma Donoghue's Akin (when you haven't read the book!)
Do you think it is possible for an 80 year old man to effectively care for a teenager?
In the story Noah dislikes Michael's swearing and playing of violent games on his phone? Why do generational differences of outlook like these appear and how significant are they?
Why does Noah throw away the hat he has cherished for so many years? Why does Michael rescue it the next day?
Michael has a keen interest in taking photographs and particularly selfies. Donoghue seems to be suggesting that he may have inherited some of his Noah's father's talent. Do you have any inherited talent that you would like to share?
If you were placed in a situation where you had the opportunity to risk your own safety and life in order to save others do you think you would be a 'hero' or a 'coward'?
Would you be prepared to 'take on' and bring up a teenager, if you were the only family in a position to be able to help? Why or why not?
Summing up of Akin by author Emma Donoghue
I had no idea how many books Emma Donoghue had actually written. I, like many other readers, probably know her largely because of the excruciatingly painful to read Room. Distressing and brilliant in equal measures. I was not disappointed by this later text and will definitely go on to seek out more Emma Donoghue books to read now. For me the ability to create convincing characters who the reader cares about is the number one requirement of godo fiction. In this respect Emma Donoghue was extremely successful.
Book Review of Elizabeth Strout's Olive, Again
I read Elizabeth Strout's Olive Again without having read the first Olive Kitteridge, but I don't think it adversely affected my enjoyment of it at all. Olive, Again is quite simply one of the best books I have ever read. It would be a wonderful text to choose for an animated book discussion group. I defy anyone to not fall in love with the cantankerous, old, troubled, self-contradictory curmudgeon who is Olive.
In this novel we meet Olive about to embark on her second marriage to Jack after the bereavement of Henry (who I believe features as the local pharmacist in her first book). We leave her, somewhat reluctantly, living in a care home in Crosby, Maine, stating that "Truthfully she (I) does not understand a thing."
As a reflection on life we are encouraged to laugh, cry, and share the insight, or at times lack of insight Olive continually displays. Elizabeth Strout is pure genius in getting to the very heart of the human condition. There are no issues she shrinks from and explores topics as diverse as paedophilia to being a dominatrix to infidelity to incontinence. The extreme and the mundane sit side by side to create a normal and weirdly realistic view of small town life.
Although presented as a novel, the book is arguably a series of vignettes in which Olive features either centrally or on the periphary as a neighbour, friend or teacher. Within the book there is something and someone that everyone can relate to in their own neighbourhood. As a reader I haven't come across a book more likely to engender an empathetic response. It is the perfect book club choice.
Book Discussion Questions for Olive, Again
What five adjectives would you use to describe Olive? What is Olive's best and worst quality?
Both of Olive's husband's die before her. Explore how she felt towards both husbands. Do you think she preferred one ot the other?
Book Club Questions for Elizabeth Strout's Olive Again - when you haven't read the book!
Summing up Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
As I put together these book club and book discussion questions it was interesting to note that it was just as easy to create questions for those who haven't read the book as it was for those who have. I have found that with other book club questions I've written too. I think that is testament to how well Elizabeth Strout explores the human condition. With relatively few words she masterfully creates unique yet universal snapshots of life that each and everyone of us can really relate to.