Watch. Listen. Read. February


Watch: War and Peace (Sunday 9pm) will march smartly to it’s finale this weekend on BBC1 (Downtonov Abbeyski? I wonder what Tolstoy would make of this lovely looking but less epic, more episodic interpretation?) For a more cerebral look at Russian history, there’s Lucy Worsley’s BBC 4 series; Empire of the Tsars.      A jaunty saunter through the imperial lives of the Romanov rulers including Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Nicolas-the not so great. Moscow and St Petersburg (or is it Petrograd, Leningrad, Stalingrad…) look travel-book sleek whilst the storytelling revels in the colourful, sometimes salacious, detail of life in a very lavish (well, for the aristocracy) time.

Listen: Women’s voices really do ring loud and clear from my Radio4 transmitter…Worth stopping to eavesdrop on are;

Stop the Clocks by Dame Joan Bakewell – a look back at a long, fulfilled life; musings rather advice I’d say, she prefers to skirt over the messy bits

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (featured image) –  the squally Orkney isles and the alluring reading voice (of Tracey Wiles) give this life-sorting tale a beguiling eloquence and

Penelope Fitzgerald, A Life by Hermione Lee – the short sentence structure somehow adds up to reveal a huge life, one that started and ended well but had a very difficult middle. And if you need a reason to know that ageing can be fruitful – you might find this rather inspirational – literary success only came to Penelope after the age of 60.

Read: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. I had either forgotten how good this book is or my second reading was just a lot more rewarding.  The story is full of suspense;  suspicion and paranoia pervade every page (aided by the setting – early 1940s Germany, Hitler and his henchmen howling at the world) but it’s the human interactions and introspection that make this work so striking.  There’s a cast of many characters, (most of whom are social misfits; mean-spirited or downright nasty) but they are all much more than plot devices, the novel’s texture comes from learning their inner thoughts too.  And an underlying message; we reap what we sow, comes through rather chillingly, (especially to anyone who’s tried to govern, lead or parent) whatever era we’re living in.

There’s more drama in the epilogue; in the retelling of the author’s own tale.      Hans Fallada spent his life in and out of asylums. Drugs, including morphine, alcohol, a suicide attempt, divorce, arrest, isolation and Nazi terror all played a part in an increasingly unstable life.  Hans wrote this book (originally titled, Every Man Dies Alone) in 2 months in 1946. But he never lived to know it would became a contemporary classic and international bestseller – in it’s English version (translated by Michael Hoffman) in 2009.

A film version starring Emma Thompson is due for release later this year.



Photo:  Snowdrops. ‘Simple, elegant, unsplashy.’ Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

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