Surviving Bad Books

I don’t often write negative reviews.  I try to avoid doing it .  But as a second generation holocaust survivor with a polish grandfather, the background against which this novel is written is something I know a bit about.  This is my history too. And whatever I was looking for in these pages, I didn’t find it.

Review :  Surviving the War by Adiva Geffen. Arrow Books.   Translated from Hebrew.

Set in the late 1930s and 40s against a backdrop of increasing pogroms, this story concerns the flight of a Jewish family from their village in the Lublin area of Poland, first to the ghetto of Ostrow Lubelski and then to the forest of Parczew to join the Jewish partisans fighting there.

According to the website of the US Holocaust Museum around 20,000 to 30,000 Jews fought in partisan groups based in the forests of Eastern Europe.  Few survived. Although in this story we see nothing true of their struggle – a missed opportunity in my view.

 

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It is one thing to research historical background accurately on the holocaust and quite another to write a convincing story of based on the suffering of those who lived and died in that time.   Perhaps because for most of us,  thankfully, such hardship is almost impossible to imagine.

So to the plot.  The chief character in Surviving is Shurka.  She grows up in a village not far from the Parczew forest against which – Peter style –  she is sternly warned about wolves.   Shurka is of course beautiful  and when she grows up she does what every well behaved and dutiful Jewish daughter does and marries handsome Avraham.  They have a chubby cheeked – equally dutiful daughter ‘little Irena –  who chases chickens round the yard of their perfect home in Glebokie while the grandparents beam with delight.   An excruciating scene takes half a page in which Shurka tries to tell her beloved Avraham that she’s expecting a baby but doesn’t like to use the word ‘pregnant’ so there is a lot of discussion about storks which he seems remarkably slow to catch on to.   Sentimental or what?

Surviving the War?  No.  What war? The war is off screen, manifesting only as sounds of gunshots heard  through a window, or rumours of shootings reported by a neighbour who heard about it from another neighbour and occasional shouts.  The characters have no interior lives of their own.

The omniscient narrator is constantly telling us what is going to happen and what the reader should think about it.  And in case we still don’t get it, there’s the exposition! Don’t even get me started.  Every piece of dialogue is there to inform the reader of things they can’t possibly be expected to glean for themselves or understand from a wider context.

Everytime a child is referred to they are ‘little’ as if the reader might suddenly imagine a newborn to be huge.  ‘Little Irena’ is followed by ‘Little Yitzhak’.     Various well meaning family members and neighbours warn the family that the war is coming closer and that ethnic cleansing of Jews has started and that the Germans are using Polish collaborators to identify the Jewish families.

The family is forced to flee – because they are Jews living in Poland and this is the 1930s and 1940s and anti-semitism in Poland is a grisly historical fact.  Eventually, more than half way through the book,  we get to the whole point of the story.  Polish collaboration.  Displacement.

The Orlitzky family goes to Ostrow Lubelski, the ghetto,  where they find an apartment.   Numerous new family members appear – many that the reader has not been introduced to including an (adult) younger sister of Shurka, called Devorah,  who is in love with somebody else we haven’t met.   Apparently Shurka has brothers too somewhere –   they are like film extras,  you never see their faces, not even while she is growing up. Although we do see the chickens.  And a doll called Alinka who gets referred so often it becomes irritating.   A crude effort to ramp up the pathos of a scene involving a child.   But to me the pathos of the plight of Polish Jews in history is a given.  It doesn’t need such artifice.

While the family is debating whether to move from the ghetto to the dreaded forest of Parczew, Shurka’s mother says:

“And what choice do we have?

To go like sheep to the slaughter?”

How could they know – the narrator asks/tells/instructs us –  that in no more than a month the whole ghetto would be cleared and the inmates taken to Sobibor.

Well they couldn’t.  That’s the point.  But at last we do have a point.

German Philosopher Hannah Arendt (14 October 1906 – 4 December 1975)

asks in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem:

“How could the Jews through their own leaders co-operate in their own destruction?”… “Why did they go to their death like lambs to the slaughter?”

A question for which Arendt received little gratitude, but which nevertheless remains unanswered.

I downloaded Surviving the War onto my kindle.  The publisher does not state the name of the translator.  The ‘Acknowledgements’ page mentions one Arlyn Roffman and ‘Zoe’ but fails to mention whether either or both of them were responsible for translating the book into English.

Thank you to  Meytal at Biblibio for hosting the Women in Translation  project.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Narratives of Slavery

How do you escape slavery mentally even if you manage to physically? Do you ever? These are questions more relevant than ever in view of the events of recent weeks and the Black Lives Matter protests.  Colson Whitehead in his book The Underground Railroad (Fleet,2017) touches on this, with a speech by Lander, one of his characters, prefiguring Martin Luther King by a century.

In the first half of the 18th century, ideas of freedom were ever present. But an idea of organized freedom for enslaved peoples was then in its infancy.  The central characters in both books escape the plantations in the South where they are enslaved, by using a system called the underground railroad. But the conception of this system in the two books is different.

Avoiding the terminology ‘black’ and ‘white’, in Coates’ book The Water Dancer slaves are the Tasked and owners are the Quality.

“And what was this Underground? It was said among the Tasked that a secret society of colored men had built their own separate world deep in the Virginia swamps.”

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Thanks to The New York Public Library for sharing their work on Unsplash.

To enslave another race is an act of pure violence so therefore it is impossible to separate  cruelty from the slave narrative.  Coates’ book is more soft focus – the bad stuff happens but tends to happen off screen. In Whitehead’s book it’s a bit more in your face.  Coates book contains fantasy elements combined with its slavery narrative, and I wasn’t sure how well the two sat together.

At the commencement of The Water Dancer, the protagonist Hiram Walker is still a child, his mother is sold by her owner (also Hiram’s father) and the boy is left alone, then raised by a strange, solitary woman called Thena.

Hiram’s almost perfect recall ability indicates a mysterious power known as conduction which involves mysterious physical travel based on the power of memory.  This power relies on deep memory – specifically memories related to Hiram’s mother.

Not everything needs to be realist. But it struck me as a little incongruous to involve what is effectively magic and fantasy within a narrative of lives when all too often such things were woefully lacking.  This I found to be interesting – a dichotomy.  Fiction is fiction, yes you can make the whole thing up. But against such an historical background what are the duties and responsibilities of the writer?   It is an enquiry into the ultimate power of memory – perhaps.  If we can come to terms with our memories, that is itself a form of freedom.

Whatever questions The Water Dancer asks, and however lyrical its prose or rounded its characterization, in terms of its plot structure I found it  lacking. And because of this, I also found it difficult to believe in any real sense of risk to the protagonist, Hiram Walker.

The story is this.  Hiram is noticed by his slave owning father for having a photographic memory, he is taken up to the big house Lockless, as a servant and educated by his father. Hiram is ‘tasked’ with looking out for his half brother Maynard – heir to the fading Lockless estate – a duty in which it could be said he signally fails when, Hiram driving on the return from a trip to town – the carriage plunges into the river Goose and Maynard drowns. Hiram survives.

If you were a slave and driving the horse and carriage and took the master’s son with you into the River Goose – even though it wasn’t your fault – there would be some sort of penalty to pay, surely? Yet Hiram seems to escape retribution.  This was only one of the plot turns that I found less than credible.

Nevertheless enslaved  even in relative comfort is still enslaved. Taking the decision to run, Hiram gets himself into all sorts of difficulties and adventures before eventually finding those involved in the underground, the work of resistance and the abolition movement called the underground, a series of sympathisers, abolitionists and safe houses.

***

In Colson Whitehead’s book The Underground Railroad, the protagonist Cora is a very different person to Hiram.   Her mother has run off leaving her daughter behind aged 8.   Unlike Hiram, Cora has no-one to take on the role of her absent mother and is left to fend for herself on the plantation – coping both with the overseers and masters as well as the behaviour of other slaves.   She is old enough to carry the memory of her abandonment by her mother – whom she believes to have escaped to safety.

In this story the railroad is conceived as an actual railway, buried black and deep in the earth run by an eclectic and jolly mix of boy/men depositing frightened and starving runaways into abandoned mines, earthworks or ruined cottages.  A brilliant idea.  It is pure gothic. When Cora asks who built it, the reply comes the same people who build everything.

Because she has been abandoned by her mother she has difficulty relating to anyone at all, even her co-slaves.    She is not going to be anyone’s pushover though.  Even aged 8, Cora first shows her mettle when taking a hatchet to the property of another slave who has decided to build a kennel for his dog on her patch.  The dog escapes.  Just.

Cora comes from a long line of such hardship.

“Cora’s grandmother was sold a few times… passed between slavers for cowrie shells and glass beads. It was hard to say how much they paid for her in Ouidah as she was part of a bulk purchase …”

In both books, we see the impossibility of escape, how well the opposition is organized using informers of all creeds and colours – whereas any organization on the slave side is left to a courageous few prepared to risk everything.

Who do you trust?  In both Virginia and Georgia as well as South Carolina and other places where these novels are set–– the slave system was buttressed not only by the masters and owners but by gangs of ruthless men who had nothing better to do than roam the land hunting down escaped slaves for the bounty money offered for their return. One such man is called Ridgeway – and he has a particular grudge against Cora.  We feel his malign presence throughout her struggle.

Colson Whitehead interleaves some of his chapters with excerpts from real ads taken from a Californian archive for the return of escaped ‘property’ in case any reader is inclined to think,  its just a novel.

If freedom is gained, then what? How are memories of persecution expunged?  This is the part of the story as yet unwritten.

I enjoyed both these books.  But for me Whitehead’s book has the edge in terms of delivering a believable narrative.  I am delighted to discover both these authors and will be looking out for more of their work.

 

 

Inspirations for Spring: Travel in a Time of Quarantine

Although we are all locked down  in our homes, our apartments, our lofts and rooms, travel books are a way to free ourselves without getting stopped by the police! Here are three of my all time top traveller/writers whose lives inspire me as well as their writing.

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Patrick Leigh Fermor  (1915-2011)

Not many travel writers can claim that Dirk Bogarde played them in the film of their own life.  Paddy could.     On 8th December 1933, aged 18, he left home to walk the length of Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (Istanbul) taking only  a few items of clothing, a copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horace’s Odes.

This journey he would later record in two books, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986).  Both of which I  loved.   Joyful and exuberant every page of the writing seems to bounce with possibility, with hope .  These are truly books to get lost in.  Yet they are set in times and in places which – even as Paddy walked – were already vanishing as war clouds gathered.   A third volume in this trilogy  The Broken Road, was authored by Artemis Cooper after Leigh Fermor’s death using his handwritten notes.    Many decades had elapsed between the young Patrick’s journey and this last book,   which to me didn’t have quite the same feel about it as the earlier works.

Once described by a BBC journalist as a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene,  Patrick Leigh Fermor was a not only a linguist,  traveller and gifted author, he was a decorated soldier who took a prominent part in the Battle for Crete during the second world war.

When I reviewed Crete: the Battle and the Resistance by Anthony Beevor I said:

One of the great romantic heroes of the resistance in Crete was Patrick Leigh Fermor, an aristocratic young Englishman,  who enlisted in the army at the start of WW2 and – being a fluent Greek speaker –  was sent to Crete as part of the newly formed Special Operations Executive to train and organise rebels.  Beevor recounts how Leigh Fermor was also sent to Cairo to be in charge of weapons training at the SOE base there, despite having experienced only one type of gun.    He later took part in the kidnap of a German General on Crete,  the story of which is recounted on Leigh-Fermor’s own books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water as well as in Stanley Moss’ ‘Ill Met by Moonlight’ which became a film with Dirk Bogarde as Leigh-Fermor.

Paddy Leigh Fermor’s   received a Distinguished Service Order and was Knighted in 2004.

***

Less than a year after 18 year old Paddy Leigh-Fermor set out to walk the length of Europe, another young man (aged 19) left his home in the village of Slad in  Gloucestershire early on a June morning and waved goodbye to his mother as she stood “waist deep in the grass and caught there like a piece of sheep’s wool.”

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (Penguin Modern Classics) by [Laurie Lee, Robert MacFarlane]

Taking no volume of Horace’s odes – at least none that is recorded –  but “a rolled up tent, a violin in a blanket, a change of clothes, a tin of treacle, biscuits and some cheeses” he started a journey mostly on foot,  that would end in Spain at the time of the Civil War.

He was of course Laurie Lee (1914-1997) who would later become famous for his memoir Cider with Rosie – beloved prop of many an exam syllabus – and As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning.   This is the second in a trilogy of books which describes how he walked to London from his home in Gloucestershire,  sleeping rough in fields, journeying on through Wiltshire from Salisbury to Southampton where he plied his trade as fiddler to earn himself some cash.  Thence along the coast to Gosport, Chichester, Worthing  and finally North to London.

Lee obtains work on a building site in Putney pushing wheelbarrows.   He remembers the buildings – a block of flats –  as being ugly:

  “we raised three unbeautiful blocks of flats – squat, complacent, with mean leaded windows, bogus balconies and imitation baronials.”

When the building of the flats draws to a close Laurie knows he will soon be out of a job but it doesn’t worry him.  He is young, free and the world is full of possibility.

He buys himself a ticket on a ship bound for Spain.  A poet as well as prose writer, Lee’s books are full of poetry.

“I’d known nothing till then but the smoother surfaces of England, and Vigo struck me like an apparition.  It seemed to rise from the sea like some rust-corroded wreck, as old and bleached as the rocks around it.”

The third book in the trilogy “A Moment of War” is an account of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War.

***

Dervla Murphy (1931)

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Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle. Dervla Murphy.  The beautiful cover of the original book published by John Murray in 1965.

Travelling is many things to many people but it is rarely – at least if you do it properly – easy or comfortable.  Especially not if you are a woman alone and travel long distances by bike.

People travel to change their outlook, their mindset, their lives, their relationships, their careers, their writing,  as well as their location.  People travel for work, for history, for information, for vision, for education: they travel to lose themselves or to find themselves.   But I do not think it unfair to say that travel is harder for a woman alone, than for a man alone.  I think this is true even today.  It was certainly true in 1960.

Paddy Leigh-Fermor and Laurie Lee both sometimes had prickly relationships with their families – who does not – but their lives were never subsumed by caring duties. They exploited the education and sense of adventure that culturally they had absorbed as their birthright and they did it brilliantly well.   Neither would ever find themselves having to write what cyclist, traveller and author Dervla Murphy (born 1931) wrote in her autobiography Wheels within Wheels : The Making of a Traveller (Eland,  2010):

“For more than sixteen years every day had been lived in the shadow of my mother’s need.  Even on holidays my movements had had to be exactly regulated so that I would unfailingly arrive home on a  certain date.”

Not an ideal resume for an inveterate traveller in the making.  Yet in her thirtieth year, as her caring responsibilities come to an end after her mother’s death,  Murphy admits to a sense of freedom without guilt,

… feeling currents of an appreciation of liberty running through my body…

She visits friends in County Wicklow and sets in motion her plans to visit India.  By bike! taking with her only her bicycle Roz (named after Rozinante, Don Quixote’s steed).

“Having for the past twenty years intended to make this journey, it did not strike me as in any way an odd idea.  I thought then as I still do that if someone enjoys cycling and wishes to go to India, the obvious thing is to cycle there.  Soon, however, I realised that most people were regarding me as either a lunatic or an embryonic heroine…”

The latter I think.  Definitely the latter.  As well as writing books on her experiences in India, Dervla went on to write The Waiting Land about volunteering with refugees in Nepal, and of her further adventures in  Ethopia, Cuba,  Gaza, Israel and Palestine.  She has also written A Place Apart about  Northern Ireland in the 1970s.  All Dervla’s books are available from Eland.

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Do you have any writers who particularly inspire you in this difficult Spring?  I am looking for suggestions for my next reads so please leave me a comment below.

 

 

 

 

 

#NonficNov  Week 3 Asking the experts : Surveillance, Tyranny and a Movement for Peace

NON FICTION-NOVEMBER WEEK 3 HOSTED  BY

DOING DEWEY

You can share 3 or more books on a single topic that you’ve read and can recommend (be the expert); you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you’ve been dying to read (ask the expert); or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

I make no claim to being expert at anything.  But I am increasingly concerned about how fragile our freedoms are and how easily they can be taken away from us.    This seems a good time to celebrate books that tackle tyrannical regimes.

Here are three learned books that to consult on that very topic.

The polish poet Czeslaw Milosz says in his note to his own book:   The Captive Mind (Penguin Modern Classics, 1953)

“It’s subject is the vulnerability of the twentieth century mind to seduction by socio-political doctrines and its readiness to accept totalitarian terror for the sake of a hypothetic future.”

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Or to put it another way.  How did Stalin get away with it?  How did the nazis?  The century may have changed but the ideas and concerns haven’t – only the methods used by oppressors change not the fundamental intent.  It has yet to be seen whether the West is currently moving towards totalitarianism.

Edward Snowden’s book Permanent Record which I am  currently reading deals with a digital reign of terror, mass surveillance,  bulk data collection and data storage currently being perpetrated on millions and tens of millions of global citizens.  All in contravention of the US constitution.   Yet  congress knowing this finds itself unable to unwilling to act.   Full review will be posted shortly.

 

And belief in a better way – A Forum for Peace: Daisaku Ikeda’s Proposals to the UN Ed. Olivier Urbain, I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd. 2014

Buddhist Philosopher and President of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) Daisaku Ikeda has written Peace Proposals to the United Nations every year since 1983 focusing on areas of great importance and relevance to our modern world.

This book is a collection of Peace Proposals on such topics as climate change, global poverty, health, human rights and nuclear abolition.

  Ikeda states:  As a Buddhist I deeply believe that no individual can experience true happiness or tranquility until we turn humankind away from its obsession with war.”

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With the intro post hosted by Julz and Julz Reads and the fiction/nonfiction pairing hosted by Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves. And don’t miss the next two weeks discussion either, coming from co-hosts Rennie at What’s Nonfiction and Leanne at Shelf Aware.

Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli (4thEstate)

This is a book born of heartache and a thousand acres of poetry.

Not for these children the blessing of growing up in a suburb somewhere,  getting yelled at about school work or too much screentime.    These are the refugee children, the anonymous ones, named only in the record of their deaths as if death alone brings an entitlement to recognition.  The right to a name is indeed hard earned for these refugee children trying to cross the desert,  to cross a long bridge in a good car and see tall glass buildings. To live in an imaginary world of light.

These are the universal siblings brought together by dire circumstances and the constancy and immanence of death.  They ride atop trains, jump off, run through thickets of gorse and stone, get scratched, bleed, or simply lie down and die of exhaustion and exposure.

“They had walked and swam and hidden and run. They had boarded trains and spent nights sleepless atop gondolas, looking up at the barren, godless sky. The trains like beasts, drilled and scratched their way across jungles, across cities, across places difficult to name. Then, aboard the last train, they had come to this desert, where the incandescent light bent the sky intoa full arch, and time had also bent back on itself.  Time in the desert was an ongoing present tense.”

And if the “barren, godless land” puts you in mind of Eliot, be assured, 21stcentury America  as portrayed in this book is The Wasteland made manifest.  In a nod to this Luiselli raises Eliot’s spectre in The Sixteenth Elegy.

“Unreal desert.  Under the brown fog of a desert dawn, a crowd flows over the iron wall, so many.  None thought the trains would bring so many.  Bodies flow up the ladder and down onto the desert floor.”

In one scene as children cross the desert  a plane passes overhead ironically full of other children.  They two groups will not know each other.   They will never meet.  But inside the plane a little boy sucks his thumb.  He is being  “erased from the fucked up country below him, removed.” As he drifts into sleep his thumb falls from his mouth.     “Finally he shuts his eyes, dreams spaceships.”

In a parallel storyline and universe  a (non-refugee) family try to make their way across the States in a bid to get from somewhere to somewhere else – to record the voices of the lost:  the Apaches,   the children.  A policewoman reprimands the family for breaking the law by letting their five year old travel in the back of the car without the correct designation of child car seat (the age limit is 7 not 5) because ‘we value our children’.   At the same time as someone else’s children are being shot at.

Somehow the author manages to make the book heart achingly sad but not at the same time depressing, perhaps because of the clarity of vision, the dextrous use of language which comes from a great deal of study and reading  thousands of acres of poetry.

But here is something else that occurred to me after reading this book.  For a project of my own I have been researching the teen fiction market. Coming from a poetry background it is not something I have ever felt the need to do before –  short of reading the obligatory Potter for my own kids.  But I asked around,   found some teen fiction titles and read them.

Why do we feel this need to categorise and make things generic for this age group, that age group?   Why do we assume that young people can only read a certain type of story?  But most of all I wondered how children can be allowed to die in the desert trying to get to a better life, but not be considered old enough or mature enough to read their own stories?

This is Book 5 of A Volatile Summer of Reading for my ten books of summer.

Sorry Mr. Fleming, WW2’s Most Dangerous Spy was in fact a lady

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell (Virago Press, 2019)

 

 

An unscheduled No.4 from my 10 books of Summer  but a worthy addition to the list.

Hall’s wartime service is described  by Purnell as “a Homeric tale of adventure, action and seemingly unfathomable courage”,  her service even more remarkable for covering a time when women didn’t register on the heroism scale  – or any other scale much.  Even more incredible, is that despite the fact Virginia Hall was disabled by a shooting accident which left her as an amputee she personally oversaw and took part in some of the most daredevil exploits to help the allies win WW2.

Virginia Hall experienced many rejections in her life but she never allowed these to stand in her way.  Repeatedly refused work in the diplomatic corps in the US (she was a woman for goodness sake who had ever heard of such a thing) Hall nevertheless in 1940 (aged 34)  travelled to France to volunteer as  an ambulance driver.  Later she went to England where she got picked up by Churchill’s newly formed Special Operations Executive (SOE) which had been formed to carry out disruptive work behind enemy lines –  and sent to France to help coordinate the resistance movement.

In 1940 the SOE itself was not the fait accompli that, with the wisdom of hindsight and Sebastian Faulks’ novels, we now assume it to be.  Purnell explains:

“Advertising for recruits for such subversive work was obviously out of the question – the government never mentioned SOE in public and if asked they would deny its very existence.  Traditionally, British Secret Services had drawn from a shallow pool of posh boys raised on imperial adventure stories, but this regard for breeding over intellect was scarcely a match for the ruthless barbarism of the Third Reich.”

Virginia Hall, however, was.

Subtitled The Untold Story of Virginia Hall WW2’s Most Dangerous Spy, Purnell gives us the story of this courageous  lady whose exploits are not dissimilar although in many ways even more extreme than those of war reporter Marie Colvin who was killed in Iraq in 2012.

Reporter for a US newspaper was the  alias that Hall first used when she went to France where she had been tasked with coordinating and building up the French resistance, starting in Lyon when she fought to stay one step ahead of the notorious butcher Klaus Barbie.  This ‘staying one step ahead’ at one stage involved Hall having to  travel to Perpignan and  cross the Pyrenees in midwinter in order to reach Spain which was, at least officially, neutral.    This unimaginable feat – with a prosthesis – this  treacherous crossing that had felled plenty of fit and able young men:

“sometimes escape parties would come across a frozen corpse, occasionally in an upright position, gazing forward with a fixed stare.”

was undertaken by Hall with the slimmest chance of survival,  along with an unfriendly guide and two other men,  even as the Wehrmacht combed the town behind her with sniffer dogs.

Despite the fact that the internet age was still half a century in the future, the germans were never short of information or the ability to trap spies from other nations, yet Virginia eluded them, even though they knew about her, including a description,  even though she limped and had a prosthesis.  Even thought they put her on their most wanted list.  She seemed to have an uncanny ability not only to adopt different physical disguises but different demeanours too.

The book is hugely readable and fascinating.  But most of all it made me feel ashamed that I had barely heard of this lady.  Yet which of us has not heard of Douglas Bader? In 1956, barely a decade after WW2 ended, a film was produced with Kenneth More in the title role playing Bader.   If Hall had been a man it is unlikely we would have had to wait so long to hear her story.  Purnell’s book is more than a biography it is the setting straight of a record that has long needed setting straight. I urge you to read it.