Monday, 9 February 2015

Dresden by Victor Gregg / Gilgamesh trans by Gerald J Davis / Secrets Of The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

Dresden: A Survivor's Story by Victor Gregg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Due to be republished on the 13th of February 2015 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Dresden bombings. I received a review copy of Dresden from the publishers, Bloomsbury, via NetGalley, and am entering this review of the book as my first for Sophie and Suze's NetGalley Challenge.

Dresden: A Survivor's Story is the brief memoir of Victor Gregg, a British soldier who, at the time the firestorm was ignited, was being held prisoner in Dresden. Managing to escape both the bombs and the prison by sheer good fortune, he then remained for the next few days helping as much as he was able with the immediate rescue efforts. This memoir is written very much as I think it would have been spoken. It is not great literature and there is a sprinkling of typos, but I think it has a far more immediate power through being so direct. I would be interested to learn if an audio version is also to be made available.

Gregg's memories encompass both the mundane and the horrific. He describes scenes that are almost impossible to comprehend and for him and the other witnesses to have lived with the memories of such sights without losing their sanity is incredible. We were taught about WW2 at school, but I don't remember Dresden getting a mention. It doesn't fit with our British view of ourselves as the conquering heroes. Gregg addresses this paradox at the end of his memoir calling for some law to prevent any reoccurrence of such civilian slaughter. In common with my thoughts after having listened to The Rape Of Nanking by Iris Chang, I am left bewildered and horrified at the capability, seemingly existing in all humans, to destroy each other.

Gilgamesh: The New Translation by Gerald J. Davis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Having recently listened to The Ark Before Noah by Irving Finkel which explores in detail the Deluge part of the Gilgamesh story, I was interested to actually read the whole epic. It's being perhaps the oldest book in the world is incredible and I suppose I was expecting something Homeric, certainly in length! However, The Epic Of Gilgamesh is quite short! I haven't read any other translations for comparison but Davis' came highly recommended so I will assume its accuracy. Once I got into the flow of the language, I enjoyed the rhythm of the stories. There is quite a lot of repetition of phrases and I wondered if this was due to Gilgamesh primarily being intended to be spoken to an audience rather than read privately. I could imagine gathered people joining in with the repeated stanzas, thereby adding to the entertainment.

I already knew that the Deluge story is a forerunner of the Ark tale in the Christian Bible, Utanapishtim being an earlier version of the Noah figure. I was interested also to spot another story that is also similar to a famous Bible tale but with a very different moral lesson. Enkidu, a man living pure in the wilderness, is shown the error of his natural ways when he introduced to a woman, Shamhat. In Gilgamesh, Enkidu gets to spend six nights and seven days with Shamhat who then introduces him to civilisation, clothing, family and, eventually, city building. In the corresponding Bible story, I remember Adam just gets a bite of apple and then both Adam and Eve are cast out of Paradise with Eve's actions causing women to be seen as a bad influence forever. I definitely prefer the Sumerian version!

Davis' translation also includes a couple of scholarly essays after the Epic. These are interesting although a little too niche in places for my understanding. I was pleased to find this easily readable translation and to now have knowledge of this most ancient tale at a very good price (on Kindle). I have already added Davis' Beowulf translation to my TBR list.

Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I found Secrets Of The Sea House in an Audible two-for-one promotion and bought it as the synopsis looked interesting and because, with its Hebridean setting, I could count it towards the Read Scotland 2015 challenge! Set partly in the present day and partly in the 1860s, I found that it swung from being fairly run-of-the-mill to being an intriguing page-turner depending on whose story I was hearing at the time.

Overall, the island of Harris comes out of the novel as the winner. It is gorgeously described throughout and I am currently determined to visit. Gifford makes even storms and blinding fogs sound romantic and beautiful. Also the three narrators do a wonderful job between them and their soft accents are wonderfully evocative.

I enjoyed the historical storyline immensely. The 1860s was a terrible time to be poor in the Highlands as callous English landlords were ruthlessly throwing people out of their homes, pretty much just because they wanted the land to get rich(er) from sheep farming. One of our protagonists, Moira, has lost her entire family to poverty-caused disease following one such eviction. Her proud, caring character was very moving. Gifford also cleverly weaves in folklore of mermaids and sea people to great effect. Our historical hero Alexander and his search for the truth about these myths is entertaining, especially given the context of Darwin's then recent discoveries. Supporting characters are also well-rounded real people, even those who only appear briefly such as the tragic Fanny and Matthew. The scene of the missing furniture is beautifully written.

With such rich pickings in the historical plot however, the present day story felt bland and almost whiningly 'woe is me' by comparison. Ruth has suffered tragedy in her early life but I did get fed up with her persistent excuses for not seeking psychological help. Also her time's characters never really seemed to emerge from the pages to me. Leaf is pure caricature but even Michael was more comforting presence than a real person. Once the problems of their own making were added - I have some illustration work, but I haven't done it on time so no pay. Oh dear, we haven't got any money, what are we going to do - it seemed as though us modern-dayers are a weedy lot by comparison to our ancestors. Perhaps that was Gifford's point, but I don't think so.

If you're looking for a diverting read/listen, and especially if you need more Scottish reads for the challenge(!), I would recommend Secrets Of The Sea House. However, having listened to most of Ruth's story on higher speed, I would have preferred the novel to have just been Moira and Alexander's times.

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