Adult Books Features Genre It's Monday What Are You Reading Lifespan of a Reader Memoirs, Biographies, and Constructed Narratives Nonfiction Reading Themes Young Adult (YA) Literature

[Monday Reading] Memoirs and Biographies That Found Me Through Online Reading Communities

"Down And Out In Paris And London" by George Orwell and "The Tattooist Of Auschwitz: Based On the Powerful True Story of Lale Sokolov" by Heather Morris.


It's Monday! What Are You Reading

Myra here.

It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers (new host of Monday reading: Kathryn T at Book Date). Since two of our friends, Linda from Teacher Dance and Tara from A Teaching Life have been joining this meme for quite awhile now, we thought of joining this warm and inviting community. 

So these two novels found me through two of my online reading communities: the #BowieBookClub (for the George Orwell memoir), and the Facebook Book Club, hosted by my Aussie librarian friend (for Tattooist of Auschwitz). I thought I better put them together here.

Down And Out In Paris And London

Written by: George Orwell
Published by: Penguin Modern Classics (2003, first published 1933)
ISBN: 0141187360 (ISBN13: 9780141187365)Book was borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

Ibecame familiar with george orwell only fairly recently. I read his 1984 and Animal Farm (see my review here) in a space of a few months over the last two years. I was trying to make sense of what is going on with the world, and my own country of birth in particular, that I felt it was the perfect time to know more about Big Brother, and Comrade Napoleon and how All animals are equal but some are more equal than others could be swallowed hook, line, and sinker by thinking human beings who are expected to know better. Hence, when the #BowieBookClub hosted by Duncan Jones on Twitter identified this book as the April title, and it fits quite beautifully with our current reading theme, plus it’s available in our library, I was all in.

As the title indicates, it captures Orwell’s immersive experience with poverty while living in Paris as a plongeur (mainly a dishwasher) and as a vagrant in England, as he was waiting for another job to come in.

The entire narrative seemed almost like an anthropological documentation of what it is like to be poor written by someone who was clearly not born into it, and can opt out of the experience at any point in time. Orwell had very sharp insights about how the destitute are taken advantage of, mainly because there are so many of them, and if one resists or gives up their menial work for a pittance, there will always be somebody else to take their place. It shows how dispensable people are, even as Orwell attempted to characterize some of the more interesting characters he met along the way: from a rapist to a learned vagabond, from Boris the Russian to B. his benefactor – sketching profiles that through this book would make their voice known to more people.

One such unforgettable character for me was Bozo, a street artist and vagrant in London, who had an intimate knowledge of astronomy, spoke passable French, and was quite the reader – having consumed Zola’s novels and all of Shakespeare’s plays. As noted by Orwell:

Yet, even as Orwell shared about the abject poverty he experienced – selling everything he owned, wearing a tramp’s clothing in exchange for his few clothes that were worth two days’ worth of sustenance – there was also a sense that he was an outsider observing his experience quite clinically. He appropriated the skin of another to come up with profound insights about the nature of class struggle, the dismal and disgusting nature of French restaurants behind the scenes, all the while attempting to derive some form of sustainable solution to a day-to-day drudgery, which he observed to resemble that of slavery, barely keeping a decent person, born on the wrong side of the tracks, alive. This may also have served as the seeds for his other novels such as Animal Farm, for example.

The version that I read had no Introduction or an Afterword explaining how in heavens’ name Orwell has arrived at this level of destitution. I had to google the information to determine whether this is something that he willingly attempted to get into as part of his experience as a writer – or was he just simply down on his luck, with absolutely no one to turn to. Wikipedia tells me that it is actually the former. While I appreciated his profundity and keen insights into a world that is evidently not his own, I now understand why I felt it was somewhat contrived despite all his best intentions.

He spoke of the exploitation being perpetrated upon the dregs of society, yet he seemed to be unwittingly unaware that he was essentially doing the same thing with the people that he encountered. There is a palpable lack of transparency about his intentions in living and interacting with them. That even as he and his friends go for days on end with just bread and gruel, it was a form of social experimentation on his end, and that he could very easily call his parents or friends for help – which apparently he did at certain points in time as seen in the Wikipedia account. I also wonder whether any of the people he met along the way were even aware that he was writing about their stories, as he interprets them.

It reminded me of the movie Good Will Hunting, where the South Boston labourer Will Hunting, an unrecognized genius, chose to live a life that he could clearly rise out of. Here, Orwell chose to reside in squalid conditions, notwithstanding the fact that he has a perfectly good home in England and a job as a journalist. I would have appreciated a Foreword that detailed his intentions as to why he did what he did. In qualitative research, this serves to enhance the researcher’s credibility and trustworthiness, and is an integral part of his personal reflexivity – which – at least in this version of the novel that I read, sans any form of explanation whatsoever – is missing.

Regardless, it is an interesting White Man’s account of what it’s like to live in impoverished conditions, knowing full well that he is only playing a part, such that the entire dismal experience (which is the reality for most of the people he met along the way) served as fodder for his future writing.

The Tattooist Of Auschwitz: Based On the Powerful True Story of Lale Sokolov

Written by: Heather Morris
Published by: Zaffre (2018)
ISBN: 1785763644 (ISBN13: 9781785763649). Book was borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

This story revolves around lale sokolov, an 87 year old survivor from auschwitz where he served as the tätowierer. As Tattooist, his task was to inscribe the numbers into the arms of the many people considered ‘undesirables’ by the Nazis (Jews, gypsies, the infirm and the elderly) using indelible ink. Sokolov entrusted his story to Heather Morris who works in Australia and met Lale in 2003.

More than anything else, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a love story. It is this which made me abandon the novel mid-way, as I simply couldn’t get to it. Perhaps it is because there was not really sufficient information about who Lale was pre-Auschwitz or even who Gita was – the intention was to make her identity somewhat of a mystery throughout the bulk of the novel, her surname revealed only somewhere in the end. This may be the reason why I found it difficult to emotionally connect with any of the characters or even root for their love story, which I felt, was totally incongruous when juxtaposed with all the death and inhumanity around them, punctuated by the smoke coming out of the crematorium. Hence, while there were attempts to characterize Gita’s giddiness with her friends as brought about by Lale’s smuggled gifts of chocolates and trinkets, and to also give voice to the school-girl type of infatuation, I felt that it was not done with sufficient grace and effective transition such that it shines out of the narrative as something hopeful and luminous – it just seemed awkward and out-of-place for me.

Lale only appeared to me as a somewhat vain man, albeit kind-hearted enough to help out fellow prisoners with his skilful usage of the tiny privileges afforded him as the Tatowierer. Yet, it was his being more of a ladies’ man that I felt, was unduly highlighted, more than his, say, attempts at divorcing himself from his Jewish identity, his conflicted relationship with the SS Officer whom he regarded both as friend and enemy, or his unlikely friendship with the Gypsies whom he confessed he would not even look at, much less, spend time with under different circumstances, yet he ended up mourning even more than his fellow Jews.

As harrowing as the premise of the story is, I felt that there was a kind of detachment in the narrative, yet pointedly-traumatic too (almost orchestrated, even; the author did mention that this story existed as a screenplay in her head for 12 years) demanding the reader to feel something if you aren’t feeling it yet. There was an attempt to make the story larger than life, without providing sufficient depth to the characters and the context of the story, rendering it with a subtle layer of complexity and nuance – everything seemed explicit here with very little space for a thoughtful reader to navigate.

Truth be told, I was taken more by the Afterword written by Lale Sokolov’s son, as well as Heather Morris’ own reflections as she shared what those conversations with Lale meant to her, and what it took from her as a person. There was a sensitivity and vulnerability to her acknowledgments that I can resonate with. Perhaps if the story had been written using a different voice, I would have captured a greater authenticity to the narrative. But then again, I am sure this story would also reach and connect with other people differently, given their own distinct life experiences, so I encourage you to read the book for yourself.

#LitWorld2018GB Update: UK/France and Poland

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Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

11 comments on “[Monday Reading] Memoirs and Biographies That Found Me Through Online Reading Communities

  1. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is one I’ve heard about and thought sounded interesting. Good to hear your thoughts about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your review of The Tattooist of Auschwitz. I’ve been wondering about it for a while, but I think I’ll passed on it for now.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m glad to know your thoughts about both of these books, Myra. I’ve been reading recent books about the Holocaust, & have the Tattoist on my list, but will probably skip it now. I recently loved The Nightingale and The Lilac Girls, plus a n-f bio of Irena Sendler, all well done. Thanks for sharing about the Orwell auto-bio, too. Perhaps people don’t realize the risks one can take when there is a “back-up”. The feelings are quite different.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for sharing your thoughts–I didn’t know this book. I want to read the afterword now!

    Happy reading this week 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great insights, Myra, and I especially love how you delved into Orwell’s background and experiences with poverty. Reminds me of critiques of Thoreau’s Walden – he’s writing this “back to wilderness and contemplation” book – and still heading out for dinner with friends every week! Incongruous.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love book clubs because they encourage me to read outside my comfort zone, and introduce me to books I might never have even looked at before. I’ve actually never read either of these, and I really enjoyed hearing your thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jana Eschner

    Heavy reading this week! Down and Out in Paris and London looks like a fascinating book. I guess I don’t really know that much about George Orwell. I read 1984 years ago, but that’s about it. I’ll have to look for it and some of his other books, too. Have a great week!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hmmm. I had heard of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, but somehow I guess I didn’t know it was a love story. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and experiences on it. Have a great reading week, Myra!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Sarah Sammis

    My son read Animal Farm over the weekend. It’s been decades since I’ve read any Orwell. My weekly update

    Liked by 1 person

  10. At first, I thought the Tattooist was by the same author of The Librarian of Auschwitz.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: [Book Quote Tuesday] Resist! Change the System or One Changes Nothing! – Gathering Books

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