These are my five books of the year which moved me and nourished my thoughts most in the past 12 months
Dr. Gwen Adshead is a forensic psychiatrist who has worked at Broadmoor, the high-security psychiatric hospital where some of England’s most infamous and dangerous criminals are detained. Her patients have included serial killers, child abusers and murderers. “The Devil You Know” is a collection of case histories from her career, carefully describing the patients’ background, their crimes, initial presentation in therapy, response to treatment and further development.
Diving into the minds of people guilty of inflicting unimaginable pain and suffering on others may not be everyone’s idea of a relaxing read. However, it pays to overcome your initial revulsion to the subject matter. “The Devil You Know” is a powerful argument in favour of maintaining humanity – even when dealing with people many would call “monsters”.
The importance of “telling your story”
From “Tony” (names have been changed), an outwardly diligent and pleasant man who murdered a number of young gay men to “Ian”, a father who sexually abused his two young sons: the selected cases are harrowing and difficult to read without succumbing to one’s own moral outrage. At such moments, it is useful to refer back to the quote by C. G. Jung which prefaces the book. Namely: “The reason for evil in the world is that people are not able to tell their stories”. A maxim which perfectly embodies Dr. Adshead’s impressive professional ethos.
Some may see these convicts as undeserving of pity. Some may feel that, by committing such atrocious crimes, they have permanently disqualified themselves from society and should not have precious health resources spent on them in this way. In telling their stories, Adshead encourages us to take a step towards the patients, and attempt to understand the inner workings which lead to them committing such horrific crimes. It makes the reader wonder whether — had they been able to speak about their turmoil earlier — their lives (and those of their victims) would have turned out differently.
4. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China — Jung Chang (2nd reading)
This modern classic, spanning the lives of three female generations of the same Chinese family, tells the story of China in the 20th century.
First, the book provides a biography of the author’s grandmother: the concubine of a Chinese warlord with traditional bound feet. Then, the biography of the author’s mother: a fervent Communist who, along with the author’s father (whom she met in the course of her political activities), rises to prominence within the Party.
Finally, the autobiography of the author tells of her own activities for the Communists and her participation in the Cultural Revolution as a Red Guard before losing her belief in Mao and eventually leaving China to study in England. The book has been translated into a number of languages and has sold millions of copies all around the world.
Wild Swans has lost nothing of its resonance or relevance in the 20 years since I read it for the first time. In fact, the stories it tells and the events it recounts seem all the more urgent in a world where China’s power and status is continually on the rise. It is an inescapable fact that the country is set to decisively shape the world in the 21st century. Against the backdrop of the author’s own dramatic family history, we are given a unique and personal insight into how China has become the country we see today.
I found this book quite by accident on a public bookshelf close to where I live. I’d seen the film already and enjoyed it (Rosamund Pike really is the go-to in Hollywood for unhinged female roles), so I decided to give the book a whirl. And did not regret it one bit. Whenever I was forced to put it down — to do such mundane things as work or eat — I instantly started to long for the moment when I could pick it up again and get back into the story.
This book invites voracious, obsessive reading and Amy Dunne is one of the most compelling and fascinating female characters in literature. Calculating, driven, exquisitely cruel and almost entirely lacking in empathy — she casually upends all the clichés which are traditionally associated with women, both in literature and in life.
Gone Girl is the most modern of thrillers and the kind of modern, twisted romance which is tailor-made for our modern, twisted times.
2 = Blechteller für Flüchtlinge — eine Kindheit in schlimmen Zeiten (translation: „Tin Plates for Refugees — a Childhood in Hard Times“; only available in German) — Heiderun Gödrich
This little book recounts the expulsion of Gödrich’s family from the town of Proschwitz in the Sudetenland (now Proseč pod Ještědem in the Czech Republic) after the 2nd World War, their subsequent life of hunger and poverty as refugees in ravaged post-war Germany and how they gradually rebuilt their lives.
At the time that the family — the author, her younger brother and sister, their young mother and both sets of grandparents — had to leave their home, Heiderun was just 8 years old. Old enough to remember, but too young to fully understand the bigger picture: it is this point of view from which the older Heiderun tells us her story. A good decision. Heidi’s raw childish honesty allows light in on the horrors of the expulsion of the Germans from the Sudetenland, a subject still fraught with painful memories and resentment and which has been weighing on German-Czech relations for 70 years. Only on occasion does Gödrich turn to her mother’s diaries (painstakingly saved and brought to Germany from the homeland) to describe certain events where only an adult’s point of view suffices.
After finishing the book, I entered into a brief correspondence with the author. During the exchange, she noted that getting older and no longer having so much future to look forward to, one tends to retreat into the past. It may have been a bittersweet experience for her to do so and write this book. Yet what she has left us with is a personal and historic treasure for which we can be grateful.
German speakers may like to watch this interview with the author on YouTube in which she discusses the events of her childhood:
2 = Ein herrlicher Flecken Erde (EN: Money From Hitler) — Radka Denemarková
Like “Blechteller für Flüchtlinge”, “Money From Hitler” addresses the thorny subject of the expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia after WW2. Any book which dives into this topic is likely to cause a certain amount of furore in the Czech Republic, as this dark chapter of their history has not yet been fully examined or processed.
“Money From Hitler” touched a particularly raw nerve, as it picks up possibly the most controversial aspect of a topic already strewn with political and historical landmines: the treatment of Jewish people returning from Nazi concentration camps to their homes in the restored Czechoslovakia. Reeling from the horrors of the Holocaust, they now found themselves being sucked into a toxic maelstrom of virulent Czech nationalism cloaked in a drive for retribution which demanded all Germans be expelled from the country.
The Czechs defined who qualified as “German” for these purposes broadly and arbitrarily. For the crime of having a German name or speaking German in earlier times, people who had already survived the unspeakable horrors of Nazi persecution once again found themselves ostracised and subject to physical violence and hatred. Some Jews even found themselves placed back into the camps they had just escaped.
During the communist period, a suffocating blanket of silence was drawn over this painful subject. Only now are the first tendrils of a full discussion and historical review starting to emerge. “Money from Hitler” was an important literary step in this process.
Reading a book in translation inevitably leads to the frustrating suspicion of missing the full force and nuance of the original language. Yet, even in the German translation, Denemarková’s prose leaves a lasting imprint in the mind of the darkest depths to which the human nature can sink. And how people who have suffered so much find a way to go on living.
And the No. 1 spot in my 2022 books of the year list goes to…
Another book found quite by accident on a public bookshelf. Had I not seen it there, I would never have known the name Hilary Hook and would never have picked it up in a bookshop either. I’m certainly glad that I passed by that shelf at the right time on that day. Home from the Hill turned into the best of my books of the year for 2022.
The book recounts Hook’s time serving as an officer in the far-flung corners of the British Empire in its terminal years. From playing polo in India to fighting the Japanese alongside the Australians in Papua New Guinea to a stationing in Khartoum, Hook’s career is a portrait of a buccaneering life in a long-gone world.
Part of the attraction of Home from the Hill is that you can approach it in so many different ways. Some may see in it a kind of real-life James Bond yarn — Hook’s swashbuckling exploits certainly invite the comparison! Others may see in it a kind of clichéd comedic element. Hook, with his reedy received pronunciation and imperial manner, is almost a parody of the Britishness of yesteryear.
Difficult and essential questions
For me, it was a valuable personal and historical account of the British Empire’s final years — an area where my knowledge is shamefully lacking (that’s a whole other essay waiting to be written…). I’m completely turned off by the hysteria and political posturing that characterises so much of the current discussion on the topic that it’s hard to find related reading matter that appeals and teaches rather than indoctrinates. On that front, Home from the Hill hits exactly the right notes.
Hook’s adventurousness, his clear enjoyment of all the advantages afforded to him by his international military life, his relations with the natives in the various countries where he is stationed, his critical views on empire and colonisation…after reading, it is hard to decide how to feel about his life. The book forces difficult, yet essential questions, such as: can it ever be said that the British Empire was — in some ways — a good thing? Should the British actually have stayed longer in some places to smooth the process of independence and mitigate/avoid conflict? Is it right to judge this man’s life through the prism of the politically correct mores of the 21st century?
The impossibility of categorising Hook and his life story as either “good” or “bad” makes “Home from the Hill” a truly satisfying read and a springboard for much deeper thought and study.
Here is the full list of books I read in 2022 (in order of reading)*:
* Titles written in italics denote books read in either French or German
1. L’adversaire — Emmanuel Carrère
2. On Secret Service East of Constantinople — Peter Hopkirk
3. Period Power — Maisie Hill
4. One Good Turn — Kate Atkinson
5. Atonement — Ian McEwan (2nd reading)
6. Payment in Blood — Elizabeth George
7. Wild Swans — Jung Chang (2nd reading)
8. House of Day, House of Night — Olga Tokarczuk (2nd reading)
9. Gone Girl — Gillian Flynn
10. When Will There Be Good News? — Kate Atkinson
11. Mrs. England — Stacey Halls
12. The Phonebox at the End of the World — Laura Imai Messina
13. Break No Bones — Kathy Reichs
14. La Tresse — Laetitia Colombani
15. Das Geheime Leben der Bäume — Peter Wohlleben
16. The Last Gift — Abdulrazak Gurnah
17. The Beekeeper of Aleppo — Christy Lefteri
18. The Familiars — Stacey Halls
19. Home From The Hill — Hilary Hook
20. Insidious Intent — Val McDermid
21. Les Impatientes — Djaili Amadou Amal
22. Not The End of The World — Kate Atkinson
23. How to be a Brit — George Mikes
24. All That Remains — Patricia Cornwell
25. The Luminous Solution — Charlotte Wood
26. Wild West Women — Rosemary Neering (2nd reading)
27. The Post-Birthday World — Lionel Shriver
28. Blechteller für Flüchtlinge: eine Kindheit in schlimmen Zeiten — Heiderun Gödrich
29. Das Schwarzbuch der Vertreibung — Heinz Navratil
30. Angels & Demons — Dan Brown
31. How Do We Look/The Eye of Faith — Mary Beard
32. The Seven Ages of Death — Richard Shepherd
33. The Foundling — Stacey Halls
34. Blood From a Stone — Donna Leon
35. The Devil You Know — Dr Gwen Adshead & Eileen Horne
36. Ein herrlicher Flecken Erde — Radka Denemarková
37. Where the Crawdads Sing — Delia Owens
38. America Day by Day — Simone de Beauvoir (2nd reading)
39. Written in Bone — Sue Black
40. The Fourth Hand — John Irving (2nd reading)
41. The Lacuna — Barbara Kingsolver
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