Early summer reads in brief

As you might gather from the sparcity of this blog this month, I’ve been busy. I’ve still been reading, but I’m very very behind on writing reviews, so here’s a few shorter thoughts on recent reads.

captain america

Captain America: Castaway in Dimension Z,
books 1 and 2
by Rick Remender and John Romita Jr

This relatively short storyline is a great example of how comics – superhero comics, at that – can be a really good medium through which to explore unusual or difficult ideas. Cap is doing his thing for the Avengers when he is kidnapped by the evil Dr Zola and taken to Dimension Z, and while he soon escapes his captors it seems that Dimension Z will not give him up so easily. Over time he gets caught up in the ongoing war between Zola’s bioengineered army and the phrox, who look monstrous but are willing to give Cap a home. Which all sounds a bit robots fight monsters grr argh, but while this book is distinctly masculine, it’s also very thoughtful. In fact, my main reservation was that Cap was perhaps too brooding and thoughtful. By far the majority of the text is his thoughts and for several pages I wondered whether he was going to speak at all. But overall I enjoyed it and the take on questions surrounding, among other things, war, parenthood, love, loyalty and belonging.

“Adrenaline surging—enough to jolt a dead man to a waltz. Need the help—so long as I don’t pass out. Pain—the shattered left hand screaming at me—it has no business maintaining a grip on a B-52 in a dead drop. Thank the adrenaline…His howl—agony…a reminder of what happens to a million people if you fail—millions of screams.”

Published 2013 by Marvel.

Source: Borrowed from Tim, who bought them at Excelsior! comic shop, Bristol.

Tales from the Secret Annexe
by Anne Frank
translated from Dutch by Susan Massotty

It pains me, after rediscovering the talent of Anne Frank earlier this year, to conclude that this collection of her essays and short stories is so far below the standard of her diary that it should probably never have been published. There are signs of her writing ability, certainly, and I don’t doubt that if she had lived she would have produced a collection after the war that would have shone with greatness. But this isn’t it; these are the writings of a child and it shows. Even her moving essays about hope and charity suffer from youthful naivety. The first part of the collection is especially odd, as it is a series of alternative accounts of events that are also included in Anne’s diary – essentially discarded early drafts. The book isn’t entirely without merit: it’s perfectly readable, provides a little extra depth to the picture of Anne for anyone who has read her diary, and the foreword is actually the best summary I have read of the Frank family’s war-time experience.

“Everyone is born equal; we all come into the world helpless and innocent. We all breathe the same air…Riches, power and fame last for only a few short years. Why do we cling so desperately to these fleeting things? Why can’t those who have more than enough for their own needs give the rest to their fellow human beings?”

Verhaaltjes, en gebeurtenissen uit het Achterhuis published 1982 by Bert Bakker.
This edition published 2010 by Halban.

Source: I bought it at Anne Frank House, Amsterdam.

Sex Criminals volume 1: One Weird Trick
by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

It really tells how much I enjoyed the first volume of Hawkeye by Matt Fraction that I was eager to check out his other current project despite a title that didn’t seem entirely aimed at me. However, it turns out that this is another fun, well written and stylishly presented series. The premise is that librarian Suzie stops time whenever she has an orgasm, an ability she discovered in her teens and has quietly enjoyed since, while getting on with her otherwise normal life. Until she meets Jon, who not only shares her ability, but has ideas about what they could do with it. Her library is closing due to lack of money, they can stop time – it seems like robbing the bank will be an easy solution. But when is life ever easy? Although this comic is undeniably explicit and R-rated, it’s actually much less explicit than some Alan Moore stuff I’ve read and, importantly, far more honest about sex. As Suzie and Jon get to know each other we learn about their teen years, discovering masturbation and other sexual acts, which is a subject that, while not quite taboo, is usually dealt with extremely lightly. This comic combines a good level of honesty and humour with a bit of action adventure thrown in.

Published 2014 by Image Comics.

Source: Borrowed from Tim, who bought it from comiXology.

That we came out of it is a miracle

The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank

The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank
by Willy Lindwer
translated from Dutch by Alison Meersschaert

This was a tough read, in more ways than one, but it was also an enlightening and occasionally reaffirming one and I’m glad I have read it, so thank you H (who gave this to me as a present).

The title is to be honest misleading. This is not a book about Anne Frank. Rather, Anne Frank is a loose link between six Dutch women who tell their stories of the war and their experiences of concentration camps. More accurately what they have in common is that they were all arrested by the Nazis toward the end of the occupation of the Netherlands and taken to Westerbork, the Dutch transit camp, and from there were transported to Germany or Poland – to Auschwitz-Birkenau or to Bergen-Belsen, where they had contact with Anne Frank and some other members of her family. But for the most part Anne Frank’s role in this book is small. Really, these are the stories of six remarkable women who survived not only the war but also the Nazi concentration camps.

“I always envied the birds who could fly away. It seemed so fantastic to me to be able to fly, to go wherever you wanted to…You saw the birds everywhere; everywhere, there were birds, even in Auschwitz, even in Birkenau, and certainly in Bergen-Belsen, where it was so beautifully green and, at the same time, so gruesomely grey.”
— Rachel van Amerongen-Frankfoorder

Five of the women were, like the Frank family and other occupants of the Secret Annexe, arrested in summer 1944 and they met the Franks at Westerbork (only one of these five had half known the Franks beforehand, as she was at the Jewish Lyceum with Anne and Margot, but not in either of their classes). Their late arrests are the result of them having been in hiding. Three of them worked for the Resistance, helping others to hide, producing pamphlets or false papers, getting food or ration books to where they were needed, and they were arrested for this rather than for being Jewish (though they all had Jewish heritage).

The one story that is different from the others and most strongly adheres to the book’s title is that of Hannah Elisabeth Pick-Goslar, who had been a close friend of Anne Frank’s (in the diary she was originally given the pseudonym Lies Goosens but more recent editions use her childhood name Hanneli Goslar). She had a very similar background to Anne, born in Germany to a respected Jewish family in 1928, they moved to Amsterdam in 1933 as a result of anti-Jewish legislation and her father, a lawyer, set up a firm to advise refugees. She went to all the same schools as Anne and lived on the same street. Their families even went away together a few times (a postcard from one of those holidays is still on the wall of Anne’s room in Anne Frank House). As the Goslars were more religious, the Franks would go to them for Jewish holidays and Hannah would go to the Franks for national holidays (New Year and Sinterklaas). Hannah was one of the first to find out that the Franks had disappeared in 1942, but she was told the false story that the Franks had gone to Switzerland (where Otto Frank’s mother lived). Hannah writes about Anne as a good friend who was charming, beautiful, flirtatious and already considered a talented writer, but also as someone who was often sick and, as anyone who has read her diary knows, stubborn.

The Goslars were rounded up by the Nazis in June 1943 and thanks to political connections spent eight months in Westerbork before moving on to Bergen-Belsen, where they were kept in relative comfort (and stayed together as a family, which was extremely rare). When Hannah found out that Anne and Margot were in another camp on the site, separated from her by a barbed wire fence, she arranged to speak to Anne regularly and threw small packages of food over. It is clear from Hannah’s description that Anne’s side of the fence suffered far worse conditions and that Anne herself was desperately changed, had basically given up, but it is the testimonies of the other women in this book that really fill in how awful those conditions were.

Perhaps the most touching part of Hannah’s story comes after the war ended. She and her sister, now orphans aged 16 and 5, had returned to the Netherlands and were waiting to see who would adopt them, when Otto Frank showed up. He had seen their names on a list and travelled a long way to come and help them (considering he himself had only recently returned from Auschwitz). He took them first to Switzerland, where they had an uncle, and then helped Hannah apply for Israeli citizenship. They stayed in touch until he died and Hannah describes him as being like a father to her. Her words made me look on Otto Frank very differently, as a man who despite all his work around Anne’s diary actually did move on and find happiness and fulfilment.

The other five women’s stories are quite different, to be honest much darker, and I think it does them a disservice to make it all about Anne Frank. But to a certain extent this is acknowledged by the author’s introduction. Lindwer writes that he interviewed these women in the 1980s for a documentary about Anne Frank and that afterwards he felt it was a shame that such small snippets of their testimonies were used, because telling their stories had been so painful for them but also because they were important stories that deserved to be told. And so this book was born, containing the full interviews, serving (much like the Definitive Edition of Anne Frank’s diary) as a historical record more than as a work of art. It appears as though little has been edited, including facts, as there are multiple points on which these testimonies disagree, but then they are recalling the most painful experiences from 40 years later.

“Auschwitz was really the end of everything; the clay soil always with standing water; a huge quagmire without a sprig of green…There was nothing, nothing that looked alive, no flower, nothing, absolutely nothing. It was the end of everything, really the end. That we came out of it is a miracle. Very religious people understand it better than I do, because I never understood that a higher being – if one exists – could let all of this happen.”
— Lenie de Jong-van Naarden

They are clearly all amazing women and they deal with their past and their survival in different ways. My favourite story (and I’m guessing Lindwer agrees as it gets by far the most pages) is that of Janny Brandes-Brilleslijper who along with her husband Bob worked in the Resistance from 1939, and later at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen volunteered as a nurse (she had some first aid training, though with the almost complete lack of supplies there wasn’t much could do for the sick except clean them with only a little water, but she did keep them company and sing songs). But they are all incredible stories and I learned so much, good and bad, from this book.

I suppose it is true that this has taught me more about Anne Frank, but mostly it has made me think of her death differently. It always seemed such hopelessly tragically bad luck that she was on the last Nazi prisoner transport from Holland, that she was moved from Auschwitz just weeks before it was liberated, that she died at Bergen-Belsen just weeks before that too was liberated, even that she died from illness and not from being selected for extermination. And of course it was tragic, but it was sadly not unusual. That last transport train carried more than 1000 people to Auschwitz, of whom just 127 survived the next eight months. The conditions at Bergen-Belsen were so bad that the majority of the inmates died of illness – typhus, starvation, pneumonia – shortly before or in the first few weeks after liberation. It was all awful and I am saddened and disturbed but also glad that I have learned a little more about it.

“I have told this because I want to make it very clear to a large number of people that all discrimination – whatever form it takes – is evil and that the world can go to pieces because of it…It only takes one person to say, ‘He isn’t as good as I am, because he has—’ You fill in the rest…We have to make sure that it will never happen again.”
— Janny Brandes-Brilleslijper

Die Laatste Zeben Maanden: Vrouwen in Het Spoor Van Anne Frank published 1988 by Gooi & Sticht.
This translation first published 1991 by Random House.

Source: This was a present from my friend H who bought it at Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

I want to go on living even after my death

The Diary of a Young Girl

The Diary of a Young Girl
by Anne Frank
edited by Otto H Frank and Mirjam Pressler
translated by Susan Massotty

This Definitive Edition of the diary of Anne Frank is not, according to the publisher’s note, intended to replace the earlier version edited by Anne’s father Otto shortly after her death, but instead to serve as a more accurate historical record for those who have already read the (quite heavily) edited version. It is in some ways quite a different book and almost makes me want to refer to the Critical Edition, which compares Anne’s original diary, her own edits and her father’s edits.

This is one of the aspects of the diary that I only learned this year – Anne Frank edited and rewrote the majority of her own diary in early 1944 after hearing on the radio that the Dutch government wanted after the war to collect eyewitness accounts of Dutch people who had lived through the German occupation. Otto Frank’s edit combined material from both versions of Anne’s diary and even some accounts she wrote about life in hiding that had been thinly veiled as short stories. The Definitive Edition is almost entirely composed of Anne’s self-edits, which I like because that is what she intended to have published herself – it’s why she went to the effort of doing all that editing.

“I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death…When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived!”

The Definitive Edition is quite a bit longer (30% apparently) than Otto Frank’s edit, because he cut a lot of stuff out. Partly this was because the original publisher was aiming at a young adult audience and therefore wanted something short and without any references to sex or puberty. And Anne, pardon the pun, could be very frank with her diary, which she called Kitty and spoke to like a friend (she even, in some places, writes as though she is addressing questions that Kitty has asked her). But the thing that struck me most reading this edition is that most of what had been cut out was material that might be considered unflattering or even outright cruel about the other occupants of the annexe, especially her mother.

I should probably include a summary of Anne Frank’s story for those who don’t already know it. Otto Frank was a successful businessman in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, which is where Anne and her older sister Margot were born. In 1933, when Anne was four, changes to German law regarding Jews led to the family moving to Amsterdam, where Otto continued his business, Opekta. In 1940 the Netherlands was occupied by the Nazis, who immediately introduced anti-Jewish laws there. Otto and his business partner Hermann van Pels signed their business over to a trusted non-Jewish colleague and the girls had to move to a Jewish school, but Otto and his wife Edith anticipated worse to come and soon began planning a safe hiding place. In 1942 a summons arrived for Margot and within days the Frank family was installed in the Secret Annexe – a building attached to the back of the Opekta warehouse that had formerly served as a laboratory and extra office space. The Van Pels family joined them there (Anne gave them pseudonyms in her edited diary, so you may know them as the Van Daans), as did family friend Fritz Pfeffer (Albert Dussel in the diary). They remained hidden for two years, until 4 August 1944, when the SS arrested all eight occupants of the annexe. They were taken to various concentration camps and only Otto Frank survived the war. When he returned to Amsterdam, one of the Opekta secretaries who had helped the families to hide gave him Anne’s diary, which she had retrieved from the annexe and hidden.

“[Miep] brings five library books with her every Saturday, We long for Saturdays because that means books. We’re like little children with a present. Ordinary people don’t know how much books can mean to someone who’s cooped up.”

The diary really is a mixture of many things. It’s an open, honest account of being a teenager, and the joys, frustrations, changes and experiences that most girls will have between 13 and 15 years old (the diary was given to Anne on her 13th birthday, in June 1942). It’s also a record of someone learning to be a writer, from before she harboured that ambition, through discovering it, to beginning to refine her work and identify what kind of writer she might be. It is of course a historical record of being a Jew under Nazi occupation, of Amsterdam in wartime, with all the food shortages and the thefts and suspicion that follow on from privation. And it’s a study of people under intense pressure, squeezed into a fairly small space physically but of course it’s the psychological pressure that made it really claustrophobic.

“I’ve been taking valerian every day to fight the anxiety and depression, but it doesn’t stop me from being even more miserable the next day. A good hearty laugh would help more than ten valerian drops, but we’ve almost forgotten how to laugh. Sometimes I’m afraid my face is going to sag with all this sorrow and that my mouth will permanently droop at the corners.”

Having been to the building itself, at 263 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, helped me to visualise a lot more of the diary this time around. The annexe was in effect insulated from the warehouse (where none of the workers knew anyone was hiding upstairs) by the Opekta offices, where all the regular staff knew about the occupants of the annexe and helped them a great deal. The neighbouring buildings were all businesses, and therefore empty at night. But although this allowed them to make at least a little noise, they still had to be extremely careful not to ever be seen, so blinds or curtains were kept drawn and windows could only be opened a little overnight, but had to be strictly closed during the day. Outside of business hours they did sometimes leave the annexe and use the rest of the building – most of them took their baths in the office or the office kitchen and they sometimes used the office kitchen to cook – but as break-ins became more frequent this became ever more dangerous.

“I see the eight of us in the Annexe as if we were a patch of blue sky surrounded by menacing black clouds. The perfectly round spot on which we’re standing is still safe, but the clouds are moving in on us, and the ring between us and the approaching danger is being pulled tighter and tighter.”

I don’t remember from my previous reading of the diary there having been so many break-ins and other near-misses and I found myself, in the last couple of months of the diary, thinking each time – was that it? Was that time they forgot to unbolt the warehouse door, or that time the warehouse manager spotted an open window, or that time they actually chased off burglars from the warehouse, the time that someone realised people were hiding there and reported it? It’s genuinely chilling to read Anne describe them as near-misses when maybe one of them wasn’t a miss at all. (Though it could just as easily have been more mundane. A lot of people knew they were there, from food suppliers to official Jewish organisations, and a slip of the tongue or a beating from the police could have betrayed them.)

I realise I’ve written a lot without really reviewing the book itself. Partly that’s because it’s impossible for me to separate the book from the wider story that it’s part of. But of course I do have responses specific to the book. Despite Anne’s edits it is still brutally honest because that is who she was. She records her joys, her rages, her depressions, her contemplations and above all she judges herself. Often she will make a proclamation that sounds ill-thought-through and childish (that she is too independent to need her parents, for example), only to tear it down a few days later, berating herself harshly, especially when she has upset her father, who she doted on. But then there are also passages that are beautiful and/or insightful. She says a few times that she has had to grow up too fast, that going into hiding effectively stole her childhood, and of course she’s right. At 15 she is better read and much more politically aware than I was at that age, but it’s more than that. She becomes quite astute when it comes to understanding people and their motives. Where in 1942 she simply dislikes most of the annexe occupants (her father and Margot are really the only exceptions, and even they come in for criticism), over time she learns to understand them all and be on better terms with them, though the relationships all remain volatile.

For the first half of this reread I didn’t think I had fallen for Anne the way I had previously. The extra material criticising her mother and Mrs van Pels/van Daan turned me off a little. But of course I was won over and if anything the change in Anne over time was more apparent and the ending more poignant. This wasn’t just yet another girl who dreamed of being a writer, this was someone capable of great things who sadly (that word is so inadequate) was only able to give the world one great thing, but what a gift it was.

Het Achterhuis first published 1947.
This translation first published by Doubleday in 1995.
Revised with extra material in 2001.

Amsterdam: Anne Frank books

Anne Frank books
(Click to enlarge)

I now own a small collection of books written by or about Anne Frank.

Yes, that’s two copies of The Diary of a Young Girl. The big hardback was a new translation from 1995 and this is the copy I read when I was 18 (I think I had previously borrowed the earlier translation from the library when I was 13 or so). It deeply affected me, as I think it affects everyone who reads it, so the one thing I was sure of when we planned our holiday to Amsterdam was that I was going to Anne Frank House and I was going to stand in the Secret Annexe.

The second of these books that came into my possession is The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank, which my dear friend H bought for me at (where else?) Anne Frank House when she holidayed there last year. Because she knows me well, she knew I’d already own the diary.

But that didn’t stop me from wanting the newer version of the diary, released in 2001, with previously unpublished material. And of course when I saw that they have now separately published Anne Frank’s short stories in the collection Tales From the Secret Annexe I had to buy that.

It was a really strange experience going to that museum at 263 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam. You walk into a modern building added to the side of Otto Frank’s business premises, and are fed through some background info before the warehouse, then the offices, then the secret annexe, then back down to further info about the terrible fates of the annexe occupants and finally the diary itself.

Despite being crowded and hustled through it all, despite the historical rooms being empty but for photos and other documents on the walls, I found it profoundly moving. For one thing, though I had read about the exact dimensions of the annexe, it was still shocking to experience its smallness for myself. It was strange seeing the pencil marks still on the wall recording the heights of Anne and her sister Margot. And that bookcase-covered secret door, which I’d read about and even seen photos of, but to see the original was the oddest thing.

But most of all, it was the pictures still on the wall in what had been Anne’s bedroom – postcards and magazine pages showing historical figures, famous paintings, film stars, the English royal family. Most of her pictures had been removed but there are still a few dozen there, preserved behind perspex. And though it’s been years since I last read the diary, I could remember Anne writing about those pictures on her wall and how much they meant to her.

So in the next few months, with that experience fresh in my mind, I’m going to read my three new books by or about Anne Frank. It will have its depressing moments but I remember the great thing about the diary being that it’s not (for the most part) a depressing read of itself. The sadness comes when you turn the page from her last written words and read the publisher’s note about her tragic death. It’s powerful, even when you know the facts already.