Only One Year – Svetlana Alliluyeva

This is an autobiography by the daughter of Stalin.  It covers one year of her life when she went from Moscow, to India, from where she defected, to Switzerland and finally to USA where she settled for a time.

The book was originally published in 1969 and was written for an American audience at a time when the Cold War was flourishing.  This events in this book may be true but I take Alliluyeva’s view of them with a pinch of salt. She isn’t going to portray her life in USSR as a good one to a US audience and she is going to try to show altruistic motives for the actions she took.

Looking at even a simple Wikipedia biography after reading the book there are some clear inconsistencies in the book; I’m sure it’s a simple oversight to forget to mention your third husband and of course your son and daughter will remain loving and caring when you’ve abandoned them in the Soviet Union and fled to USA.

Cynicism and scepticism out of the way though this is an interesting book.  It can’t have been easy having Joseph Stalin for a parent and it must have been an uneasy time living through the de-Stalinisation programmes of the 1950s and 60s, wondering what the outcome might be for you and your family.

It’s interesting to contrast the different styles of living between USSR, India, Switzerland and USA.  Clearly as a new immigrant Alliluyeva isn’t going to describe USA in negative terms but the descriptions are interesting.

It was also interesting to read descriptions of friends both in Soviet Union and USA.  She clearly had plenty of them.  The Soviet ones read like those of a rebellious teenager; ones her father was likely to disapprove of!  The ones outside the USSR could, if one were cynical, be described as largely people who could see some political or material advantage in being able to say they were friends with Stalin’s daughter.

Looking at biographies, rather than this autobiography, Svetlana Alliluyeva seems to have been a restless person, never really settling anywhere, never really belonging.  I feel some sympathy towards her for that.

I would like to respect her for her courage in defecting to the West in 1969. But, having read this book, a little voice at the back of my brain is asking “was this another teenage-style rebellion? Was it to become an important person again?”

Overall, it’s an interesting view of one person living through the Cold War having seen both sides of the fence. And I still feel conflicted over how much I believe.

World of Girls – L T Meade

The next book off my pile to read from the auction lots I bought.

This one is a school story first published in July 1886.  This copy is from December 1899 and has a beautiful cover that illustrates a point in the story.

The story is, roughly, that Hester, a newly motherless girl, is sent to boarding school and feels insulted by Annie, the first girl she meets.  Annie is a favourite amongst the others but soon finds herself ostracised when spiteful mischief breaks out in the school and it looks as though she has done it.  Things become worse when Hester’s sister comes to school and takes to Annie.  The final part of the story involves Annie running away to rescue Hester’s small sister from a band of gipsies and the true culprit of the spiteful deeds being discovered.

In other words, despite this story being over 100 years old it is a school story like any other school story and I was surprised by how relevant it felt.

There were some oddities, such as the girls referring to each other as Miss Thornton and Miss Temple etc.  The language feels a bit prissy and stilted in places too.

The most frustrating bit was being able to pick out who the mischief-maker was very early on. I don’t know whether this is because I’m an adult reading a children’s book or because it’s easy to spot. There’s also no real reason given as to why the girl decided to carry out these acts.

Overall though if you have a small girl in the family who likes school stories and wants something a bit different to read I’d recommend giving L T Meade a go.

After They Killed Our Father – Loung Ung

This book is the sequel to First They Killed My Father, a book about what happened in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge took power.  During this period she went from a relatively wealthy and comfortable life in Phnom Penh to living in primitive conditions in a rural village where her father was taken away to be killed and her mother and two of her sisters died.

“After” is about what happened next.  Ung, her eldest brother and his wife escaped to a Thai refugee camp and from there managed to get to Vermont USA.  From arrival in USA Ung’s book tells her own story in parallel with that of the sister who remained behind in Cambodia. In this way it shows the significant differences in the way the West live and the way people were forced to live in a less developed country in South-East Asia.

At times I had to stop and remind myself that these lives are being lived in the 1980s and 1990s! Reading Chou’s story it is hard for me to comprehend how people survive living with the uncertainty, scratching a living from land that can be deadly and this in an era of growth, development and plenty in the West.

I find it easier to comprehend Loung’s story.  I can imagine how disorienting it must have been moving to a place so culturally different and wanting desperately to fit in.  I can imagine the residual fear and anger over what happened in Cambodia and the luxury and pain of being able to feel it once she arrived in a place of safety.

Despite the differences in the sisters’ life experiences though this is also a book about having the drive and determination to achieve something and about not letting the past destroy the future.  I admire the Ung family for getting on and living life.  I am sure there are many former refugees and survivors of terrible regimes who have done similar.

As well as getting involved in the story I am also aware of finding out more about how thin the veneer of civilisation is and how quickly it can disappear.  Underpinning this is a sense of incomprehension and bemusement as to how, in an age of easy mass communication, a dictator can so take such a strong hold of a country and destroy its culture.  Dictatorship should be consigned to the history books.  Why isn’t it?

Stories of Famous Days – E S Brooks

This is another of the books that came out of my mammoth auction lot.  I pulled it out to read because the preface states “There never was a holiday but had its store of stories that might be told – if only the heroes and heroines thereof could find audience or opportunity.”  How could you not read a book that starts like that.

My best guess, based on the language, some of the stories and the binding, is that this book was originally published in the USA at the end of the 19th century. It is odd, quirky and interesting.

The book looks at the main high days and holidays in the calendar and tells a story or legend about each of them.  It starts with Christmas, continues with New Year’s Day, St Valentine’s Day, April Fool’s Day, May Day, Midsummer Eve, Independence Day, A Great Olympiad, Michaelmas, Hallow E’en and finishes with Thanksgiving Day.

My favourite of the stories is the April Fool played on King John by the residents of Gotham whilst he was travelling to Nottingham.

I loved the fact that all of the stories and legends were new to me.  It made reading the book a bit of an adventure.

The language also made it a bit of an adventure.  It took time to get use to the odd phrasing and obsolete words.  Despite being considerably newer I find it easier to read Shakespeare than this.  It might be that it is written in American archaic language so the sentence structure and cadence are unfamiliar too.

Not all of the stories are interesting and a couple are downright dull for children, which is who this book is aimed at.  However, I plan to pass the book onto my eldest honorary great-niece, aged 11, to see what she makes of it.

I’ll report back when I’ve heard from her.