Henry IV, Act 3, Scene 1
To be honest with you, I am absolutely sick of history at the moment, as I’m writing my Irish coursework.
I know, poor me, right? So I thought I’d do a post on some actually interesting history books to raise my spirits on this icily bitter day.
The most relevant book to my titular quote is ‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson, in which the hundred-year-old man Allan Karlsson (it’s set in Sweden, if you haven’t guessed already) decides he’s had enough of sitting in an old people’s home, climbs out of a window and disappears. No kidding right? 😉 Yeah, the title does kind of give the basic plot away… But I promise you, it’s a little more interesting than that. The action switches between Allan’s improbable adventures and the weird people he meets after escaping from the home and Allan’s past improbable adventures over his hundred years – and I mean improbable. As in he just casually rubs shoulders with General Franco, Stalin, and President Truman; just as casually invents the atom bomb and gives it to both the Soviets and the Americans; and then equally nonchalantly gets caught up in a criminal organization and an international drug deal. Told you it gets more interesting. The beginning is a little slow (plus the mean head of the home is called ‘Director Alice’. Not cool. All Alices are amazing – it’s a well-known fact), but the pace picks up reasonably quickly, and it’s very easy to get caught up in this crazy world. Another plus point is how much history you end up incidentally learning from all the different events Allan plays a part in; I learnt more about the Korean War in a chapter than I did in all of GCSE History! Overall, a fun and easy to read book, though not amazingly written in terms of evocative description, powerful imagery or deep, meaningful message (except, I guess, take life as it comes and don’t worry about the consequences. And don’t be political.)
This completely contrasts to ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Again, the title here kind of gives away the main premise of the story. Ivan Denisovich, otherwise known as Shukhov, lives in a Russian work camp, so I thought originally this was going to be a depressing read, reiterating the usual statistics and death tolls that many other books do. But the day is just a normal, ‘almost a happy day’ in his life and the real skill comes at the end, when you fully realise that you have been thinking of two slices of bread as a lot, a cigarette as a treat and not getting put in the cells as luck. Although there is naturally a dark, cold undertone to the whole story, it’s really only at the end, during the last lines, that you remember the huge scale of this:
“There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail.
The three extra days were for leap years.”
Although you get used to the fact that he might have to deal with this inhumanity for one day, the idea that this same process, the same uncertainty of never knowing if you’re going to get fed, get warm or get punished could be repeated over and over again for ten years is just horrific. A pretty impressive book all in all that really makes you think. Just as good as Jonasson’s novel, with a similar theme, but with an entirely different take on this idea of ordinary people’s lives in history.
Finishing with a more obviously ‘history’ book: ‘The Coming of the Third Reich’ by Richard Evans, I’m going to be honest here. I’m primarily an English student, not a History student, and this book was. a. struggle. By about half way through I was ready to give up – all the interesting information really came at the end of the book, but by that point I was so sick of it, I didn’t really care. If you’re into your history or studying the Nazis, then this is probably a good book to read, but for God’s sake use the index. Unless you’re a history boff don’t bother reading the whole thing; it wasn’t even worth the sense of achievement I got from having finished it. Go see Evans in person instead – I just went to see him with my school at a history conference, and he’s a pretty good lecturer (as well as a surprisingly good singer; he sang “Hitler – he’s only got one ball” to a packed hall of teenagers – now that’s brave). So yeah. Kudos to Evans for writing the book, it’s packed with information, but unfortunately no fun to read, unlike the other two.
As usual, thanks for reading! Please comment with any suggestions you have to make Irish history fun – I seriously need some diversion right now. I’ve just finished Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ which I lurve so I’ll be posting about that next time, and I got some ‘Bookshop Bounty’ yesterday (no idea if that’s a thing, but ohmygod alliteration), so I’ll try and read those books speedily (yep, procrastination, I know). Thanks again 🙂