I am very sad to announce that Norm died in Addenbrooke's hospital in Cambridge in the early hours of this morning. Writing this blog, and communicating with all his readers, has brought him an enormous amount of pleasure in the last ten years. I know that since writing here about his illness earlier in the year he received a lot of support from many of you, and that has meant a great deal to him, and to us, his family. The blog and all its archives will remain online.
While I'm sure these lists are meant to be helpful, guiding us towards books we might want to try, they can also be a bit oppressive, don't you find? I mean, they tempt you to start counting, to see how well you fare as a literary fishbo. And it can be a little depressing. 'Oh no, I've only read a quarter of these!' Or it might be better than a quarter - a third maybe or just over half - but anyway if you're me (which is true for at least one case) there are always a whole lot of books I haven't read. I start muttering that someone is trying to make me feel bad.
All of which is by way of introducing another such list of books that I recently fell upon and that has an interesting feature I want you to consider. What this feature is I'll leave till you've glanced at the list itself. It's '100 works of fiction you might enjoy' and is as follows.
Jane Austen, Emma
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
Sebastian Barry, A Long Long Way
Saul Bellow, Mr Sammler's Planet
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
André Brink, A Chain of Voices
Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace
Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Fyodor, Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
Fyodor, Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground
Marina Endicott, Good to a Fault
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Gate of Angels
E.M. Forster, Howards End
E.M. Forster, A Room with a View
Margaret Forster, Have the Men Had Enough?
John Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
Tom Franklin, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
Helen Garner, The Spare Room
Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis
Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford
William Golding, Lord of the Flies
Vasily Grossman, Everything Flows
Patrick Hamilton, The Slaves of Solitude
Knut Hamsun, Hunger
Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Kent Haruf, Eventide
Kent Haruf, Plainsong
Joseph Heller, Catch-22
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
Henry James, Portrait of a Lady
Henry James, The Spoils of Poynton
Elizabeth Jenkins, The Tortoise and the Hare
Franz Kafka, The Castle
Franz Kafka, The Trial
Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
Cormac McCarthy, The Road
John McGahern, Amongst Women
Belinda McKeon, Solace
David Malouf, The Great World
William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows
William Maxwell, Time Will Darken It
Herman Melville, Bartleby, the Scrivener
Philipp Meyer, American Rust
Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love
Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart
Iris Murdoch, The Black Prince
Iris Murdoch, The Nice and the Good
Maggie O'Farrell, After You'd Gone
Maggie O'Farrell, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
George Orwell, Animal Farm
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Charles Portis, True Grit
Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time
Barbara Pym, Quartet in Autumn
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Marilynne Robinson, Home
Philip Roth, The Human Stain
Philip Roth, The Plot Against America
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Edward St Aubyn, Never Mind
José Saramago, Blindness
W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz
Art Spiegelman, Maus
Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge
Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human
Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont
Colm Tóibín, The Master
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
William Trevor, Love and Summer
William Trevor, The Story of Lucy Gault
Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers
Anthony Trollope, The Warden
Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun
Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
Anne Tyler, A Patchwork Planet
Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust
Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country
Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome
P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters
Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
Richard Yates, The Easter Parade
Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road
Émile Zola, Germinal
That's it. Now, in all my experience of such book lists, this one has a unique feature. Which is that I've read all the books on it. Yup, every single one - 100%. That's because I compiled the list from... the books I've read (choosing titles, as well, that I liked enough that I'm happy to recommend them). Why should I let other people make lists to browbeat me with? If I make the list myself, I get to have read everything on it. Enough bullying is what I say. You, too, can make your own list and rebel against the tyranny of the book-dictators. I suggest you do it.
In exactly the same neck of the woods as that last post is a letter from Jenny Tonge in today's Guardian explaining to Jonathan Freedland 'that criticism of Israel and Zionists who support that country is not antisemitism'. No, it isn't - unless it is. When are Tonge and her co-isn'ters going to cotton on to the possibility of this last bit?
If someone criticized Ralph Miliband for having had wrong-headed Marxist ideas, this wouldn't in itself be anti-Semitism either. But if the critic happened to be a believer in the myth of a world Bolshevik-Jewish conspiracy, then it just might be. You'd need to look into the critic's habits of argument to see whether he or she had ever deployed the theme before. Some years ago Tonge (you may or may not happen to remember) delivered herself of the following gem at the the Lib-Dem conference in Brighton:
The Pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the Western World, its financial grips. I think they've probably got a certain grip on our party.
Her current protestations about 'look[ing] for antisemitism where none exists' appear in a different light coming from a person ready to deploy that particular 'traditional' theme. (Thanks: E.)
I'd sort of lost sight of this one: the controversy over the name of the Washington Redskins. But it's still going strong. It seems that those defending the team's hanging on to that name are appealing to the alleged fact that 'only one in 10 Native Americans were offended' by it, as well as to the more general consideration of 'history and legacy and tradition'. Tradition it certainly is but it's the wrong tradition.
The Washington Wetbacks? The Houston Hymies? The Chicago Chinks? Or perhaps the New York Niggers?
Or, if one wants to make the link, those 'Yids' of White Hart Lane. It is constantly surprising how stuck people can be over the view that racist prejudice is simply a matter of what one intends; and how stubbornly they resist the obvious truth that words and symbols carry meanings associated with their history and which cannot simply be disowned by declarations of good will.
Shutting down the government of one's own country isn't such a great idea, even when the shutdown is partial. A column in the Washington post says that the impact of it is likely to be small so far as damage to the economy is concerned. But damage to the economy isn't everything. Consider the effect of the shutdown on Michelle Langbehn. She's in the middle of treatment for cancer and is waiting to learn if she can take part in a clinical trial:
When I contacted him [the clinical research coordinator] on September 30, he had told me all my records had been sent in, and they had started evaluation, that they needed to do their own re-diagnosis. They had started, and then on Tuesday, everything came to a halt... If I had a message, it would be that lives are at stake.
You'd expect some serious consequences from a shutdown of government-supported functions.
On a related matter there's also this, which I don't understand at all - a column by Sean Wilentz, professor of history at Princeton, who argues that the Republicans in Congress would be acting unconstitutionally in precipitating a default on the US public debt. How can that be so and Obama not be threatening to use it to resolve the current standoff if he has to? Somebody else might be able to explain it to me.
Here's a 15-year-old student in Sydney, Zeke Coady, justifying his choice in studying Latin. He says it's fun. He finds Latin interesting in itself, and in how it has contributed to the language (English) we speak today, and in its relationship to Italian. He's not especially bothered about its effect on his career prospects.
I think it's important to know things just for the point of knowing them, not because I'll need them to make money... I chose Latin, because I think it's enjoyable just to learn for the sake of learning.
If a bit more of Zeke's approach to life were to find its way into the councils of those responsible for running and funding education, that would be no bad thing. It's a sad comment on the state of the world, in fact, that anyone with anything to do with education should need tutoring in this way of thinking.
No one can doubt her courage, nor the inhumanity of her obscurantist tormentors. Yet it would be too easy to blame the Taliban for the lack of female education in Pakistan.
Instead, Malala is only the most vivid symbol of a deep-rooted problem that existed long before the birth of the Taliban - and affects areas of Pakistan which its gunmen have never reached. In the process, the lives of millions of boys are blighted, just as surely as girls.
The problem can be simply stated. Pakistan has neglected to build a public education system worthy of the name. No single leader or political movement can be singled out for blame: this is a calamitous national failure built up over generations.
Today, only 67 per cent of Pakistani girls and 81 per cent of boys go to primary school, according to the United Nations. That may not sound disastrous, until you remember that neighbouring India achieves close to 100 per cent for both genders, and even Uganda and Zambia manage more than 90 per cent.
When it comes to secondary education, the situation is far worse, with Pakistan's enrolment rate plummeting to 38 per cent for boys - and only 29 per cent for girls. Again, the poorest countries in Africa do significantly better, typically achieving around 50 per cent.
Then consider the fact that Pakistan's population exceeds 180 million, of whom almost half are children under the age of 18. If a big majority have no chance to go to secondary school – and a significant minority cannot even gain a primary education – then tens of millions of children are missing out.
In the years during which I taught a course on the Holocaust at Manchester, one of the topics I covered concerned gender aspects of that historical experience. We looked at women as victims and the ways in which their sufferings were similar to those of men and the ways in which they were different; at specific aspects to do with sexuality, pregnancy and the care of children; at the role of women in the resistance to Nazi brutality; and, inevitably also, at women as bystanders to and perpetrators of genocide. At the time I didn't know of any systematic study on women as perpetrators, but what was scattered across the Holocaust literature was pretty much the same range of behaviour as was to be found for men - from extreme cruelty, through 'run-of-the-mill' harshness, to the occasional example of a more humane woman camp guard who would try to mitigate the treatment being meted out as a matter of routine. In general the judgement of historians and other observers was that the behaviour of women perpetrators matched in cruelty that of male guards.
This may come as a surprise to some, but to me it never was. Women are people and while there are undoubtedly gender differences relevant to the role they can come to play in brutal episodes, as members of our species enough women will share those attributes of human nature that undermine, corrupt and provoke individuals to behave shockingly for there to be an adequate complement of them filling whatever spaces for brutality happen to be available at any given time.
A new book by Wendy Lower - Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields - is reviewed here. It should throw some light on this unhappy topic.
Distilling many years of research into the Holocaust, Lower focuses her account on the experiences of a dozen or so subjects... ranging from provincial schoolteachers and Red Cross nurses to army secretaries and SS officers' molls. Despite coming from all regions of Germany and all walks of life, what they had in common was that they ended up in the Nazi-occupied east, where they became witnesses, accessories or even perpetrators in the Holocaust.
Lower is scrupulously fair to her subjects, providing a potted biography of each, explaining their social and political background and examining the various motives – ambition, love, a lust for adventure – that propelled them to the "killing fields". This objectivity is admirable, particularly as most of the women swiftly conformed to Nazi norms of behaviour, at least in turning a blind eye to the suffering around them. One woman, a Red Cross nurse, organised "shopping trips" to hunt for bargains in the local Jewish ghetto, while another, a secretary, calmly typed up lists of Jews to be "liquidated", then witnessed their subsequent deportation.
Most shocking of all are the accounts of the women who killed. One of Lower's subjects, a secretary-turned-SS-mistress, had the "nasty habit", as one eyewitness put it, of killing Jewish children in the ghetto, whom she would lure with the promise of sweets before shooting them in the mouth with a pistol. Lower presents another chilling example: that of an SS officer's wife in occupied Poland who discovered a group of six Jewish children who had escaped from a death-camp transport. A mother, she took them home, fed and cared for them, then led them out into the forest and shot each one in the back of the head.
Despite these horrors, Lower's book resists the temptation to wallow in emotive rhetoric; nor is it drily academic. She writes engagingly, wears her considerable erudition lightly and has opted to stick with a broad narrative account, comparing and contrasting but never allowing her analysis to outweigh the fundamental humanity of the stories. The book's power lies in its restraint.
Neither can Hitler's Furies be imagined as some sort of Woman's Hour rereading of the Holocaust. There is no special pleading for the subjects and the gender studies aspect of the book is kept well within bounds. Indeed, in analysing the women's progress from nurses and secretaries to accomplices and perpetrators, Lower is at times eager to emphasise that the forces that drove and shaped them were in some ways the same forces experienced by Germany's men - the seductive appeal of Nazism, the heady lawlessness of the occupied eastern territories and the "new morality" of the SS.
It's worth remembering here that many of those women who committed crimes could not resort to the time-worn excuse that they were "following orders". They were not. They were merely reacting and adapting to their surroundings.
'We' here being Adèle and her old buddies from college days, gathered for their reunion after half a century. Half a century! It can't be; as the woman said, 'I was at Woodstock, for Christ's sake! I peed in a field!'
Anyway, read about Adèle's reunion; it's headed by a terrific poem, written by Wendy Cope about the same occasion. Scroll down for the St Hilda's college gates, through which I have passed many a time and oft on my way to visit or fetch out my then newly beloved.