March Book of the Month- I Have Lived A Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson

We think we know. Or at least that we can imagine: the terror that struck their hearts, the fear that perpetrated every dream, the weight of their sorrows.

If there is anything to illustrate just to what extent the present is ignorant of the past’s sufferings, then this is the book to do it. An autobiography, I Have Lived A Thousand Years is the shocking retelling of Bitton-Jackson’s experience of two years under Nazi rule, as a Jew. We have all heard the stories of concentration camps, seen images and even visited them. But until you have absorbed the description of someone who suffered, you will never skim the surface of understanding what life was like during the Nazi regime. Having been subject to work at Dachau and Auchwitz, there are countless, gruesome recollection of days without water and food. Where she was forced to march for miles, leaving trails of red as pieces glass drove deeper into their bare feet. It is, to say the least, a raw and uncensored account, and rightfully so. Just be warned that it can be incredibly emotional.

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In concise detail, Bitton-Jackson writes about the most influential and momentous experiences of her childhood. After growing up in a small town in Hungary, one day the streets are overwhelmed with Nazi attitudes. It spirals, scarily fast, out of control. By reflecting on the events of the past, it reminds what a great distortion of reality we actually have, how the peace we bathe in every day is no more concrete than the placated moods of the global leaders. So, the message is, don’t take it for granted.

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By reading this book, you will perpetrate, as much as any of us can, the reality of the concentration camps. The way that everyday could be the last- the fact that there were teams of Jews forced to drag their friends’ bodies out of the gas chambers, to pick out their gold teeth, unpeel whatever could possibly be of value from their bodies. The pointless violence. The train journeys, with the final destination intangible. The days so long, I could feel Bitton-Jackson’s despair penetrating through the pages. The bodies staggering as plumes of blood dotted their shirts, after the prisoners clamoured around the trains’ window to collect soup from the Red Cross during one of the stationary periods of the train journey. Except, of course, it wasn’t the Red Cross. It was the Nazis, using Red Cross vans, and even bowls of soup, as a lure to get the Jews to come to the window so that they be shot more easily.

It was a horrific read.

In a way, Anne Frank’s diary is the perfect prequel to this. Of course, they lived on different sides of the continent, but both were young teenage girls, and whilst Frank recalls the conditions of her concealment, Bitton-Jackson tells of her experience of what followed. In my opinion, I Have Lived A Thousand Years should be considered as classic a war read as Frank’s Diary, because it is one the few books to tell the story of a survivor, and reads well too. I would recommend this to anyone interested in history, current affairs or simply a gripping, emotional read. In many ways, it’s much more engrossing than a novel, and what better way to honour the deaths of so many millions, than by understanding the conditions of their deaths?

December Book of the Month – The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

A mystery clouded by mental instability. Raw, shocking and cruel, but above all honest, this is a insight into the world of a teenager battling mental illness. It is clear that, in 2013 at least, the judges of the Costa Book Award were wise. I can’t think of a more suitable winner- I was gripped by the novel and read it in less than two days.

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Matthew Holmes, aged 19, recounts the incident that has dominated his childhood painstakingly, from the computer in his local mental health centre. Why is he there? Diagnosed with schizophrenia, just like his grandfather, Matthew often hears his older brother with Downs Syndrome, Simon, speaking to him. Begging him to play, to come outside and join him:

“If the tap choked and spluttered before the water came, he was saying I’m lonely. When I opened a bottle of Dr Pepper and the caramel bubbles fizzed over the rim, he was asking me to come out and play. He could speak through an itch, the certainty of a sneeze, the after-taste of tablets, or the way sugar fell from a spoon.”

And our protagonist feels compelled to listen. Simon has been dead for over a decade. Some say he died at a Caravan Park in Dorset, but  Matthew believes it was practically murder. The guilt that has wracked him, and wrecked his family after that fated night saw a shocking transition from an innocent, boisterous boy to a teenager stumbling through life, taking all the wrong turns.

For me, it was Matthew’s voice that made this novel remarkable. His voice, breaking free from the words, illustrated the development of his character incredibly. Matthew was almost tangible, and that is what Filer achieves so greatly. That sense of a person speaking just out of sight. That there really is someone out there, a boy that age. It’s how we get lulled into fiction, because it’s all just stories, isn’t it? In the end it’s a product of a person sitting in front of a bright little screen, carefully crafting the characters that seem so spontaneous. The characters we take home and discuss over dinner, and bring into our lives.

One outstanding aspect of this novel was the detail that Filer gave concerning mental health facilities and regimes. He clearly didn’t research through watching films. Actually, Filer was a mental health nurse, and so the vivid descriptions of the mistrust Matthew feels as he is forced to take his drugs tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and to endure the awful side effects, can be taken at face value as that of a (relatively- this is still fiction) accurate account, not that of some dreaming, sheltered author.

Yet on the other hand, there was a minor issue. Only a small one in the grand scheme of things, but it must be mentioned. The great reveal was grossly delayed. It was saved until page 247. By that time the actual suspense had faded away, because my interest in reason to Simon’s death could only last for so long, and by that point I had a rough (correct) idea anyway, so the climax/ reveal came as no shock. It is worth mentioning, that from the outset the protagonist does mention it the ‘shock of the fall’ (yes, that’s the title too!) which kills his brother, but we only really learn why it is has triggered schizophrenia and lasting guilt until the reveal. And marvellous at character building although Filer is, I don’t care that much to be interested until the end of novel.

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Overall I thought that this poignant novel, with a frank and humorous tone, is definitely worth a read because of it’s insight into the life of a teenager with schizophrenia, and the clever use of typography and sketches to aid the narration. Here is a short extract which I think sums up the tone of the novel perfectly:

“I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name’s Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.”

So have you read the Shock of the Fall? What do you think of it? What is your favourite book concerning mental illnesses?

 

One by Sarah Crossan- May BOM

This beautiful novel, comprised of lyrical free verse, will make you reconsider everything you knew about friendship, sacrifice and freedom.

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Tippi and Grace are sixteen, and after a lifetime of homeschooling, they’re going to an elite private school, with their space paid for by the government. They’re grateful; they come from a suffering family who can barely afford to pay for all their medication. They’re are lucky too; this new opportunity would not be possible if they couldn’t only take up one space at the school. Some people might marvel them, other shrink away in disgust. But one thing is clear; these two twins are beyond the group of ordinary they desire to be in. Tippi and Grace are conjoined.

I absolutely loved this novel, and the way it is written in free verse so that it resembles a trail of thought. I think that this is a very effective way of writing because it shows the reader that the two girls are in fact separate entities, each with their individual desires despite their shared body. Also, because of this original style of writing it is more striking and memorable, and because not many author care to experiment with forms of verse anymore and stick only to conventional prose.

I thought that the plot was well executed; Crossan immediately makes us engage through pathos, as we see from the start the sacrifices each girl makes for the other in order to have a happy, compromised life, and that, in turn if something effects one person, there is a knock on effect for the other. I have only ever heard of one other book about conjoined twins, but it seemed to serious and heavy for my liking. Here, Crossan deals with delicate issues too, but she makes them as relatable as they can be. For example, Tippi and Grace go to school for the first time; high school. Everyone can remember that in one form or another, and can relate to that daunting experience even if they didn’t have the issue of being the centre of attention. Also, Crossan does not weaken the plot at any point in order to make it more bearable on the reader’s behalf; it is extremely emotional as we see their family battle against poverty, suffer with an alcoholic father and bear the injuries of given to them through the public eye.

This is an amazing book; I would definitely recommend it because it is short and concise, without babbling on at all! It investigates such an unusual crazy condition perfectly and has an utterly breathtaking story. Tell me now; why wouldn’t make this book of the month?