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Brandenburg Gate

There are thousands upon thousands of books about Berlin.  Where to start?  I started with the first book published by the (relatively) new publisher on the Berlin block, Readux Books.

City of Rumor: The Compulsion to Write about Berlin explains why there is so much choice.  For Berlin imposes itself on writers, demanding that the experience be put on the page ….  and yet, as we shall see, it is notoriously difficult to do.

There is a measure of unaccountable time you can spend in Berlin and write it off as extended holiday frippery.  But there comes a Rubiconic moment, after which you’ll find it hard to leave without having something to say for it all. 

So begins Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s 21-page essay on Berlin, the city to which he went on a Fullbright scholarship in 2007-2008, to write a novel.  However, the city of hedonistic excess and what he calls the floating island of privilege took over, eventually leaving a sour taste.  When he wrote his stories, he wanted to show his contempt of such excess.    The pieces were to remain unpublished until they had been significantly reworked (many times over, I think) to fit a new and more mature world view, gained from years of world-wide pilgrimage recorded in his book A Sense of Direction.  It took a while but 

finally I had at last put myself in a position to live in Berlin on my own terms (ambition, resolve) and not on the terms I’d construed as Berlin’s (depravity, irresponsibilility, indolence).

What’s interesting though is he has chosen not to live in Berlin on a permanent basis, invalidating his own argument perhaps? Having left, 

I have found, however, that I cannot shake the urge to write more about Berlin, to revise what I have already written about Berlin, and furthermore to disclaim in advance as insufficiently definitive anything I might conceivably write about Berlin in the future.

Berlin may impose itself but, like some humans, it refuses to be pinned down.  The reasons for this become obvious in David Wagner’s Berlin Triptych (also published by Readux Books, translated by Katy Derbyshire).  The place is in a constant state of flux.  In 2000 Wagner, who has lived in Berlin since 1991, visited many areas of the city and recorded his observations.  He repeated the exercise in 2013.  The three pieces in Berlin Triptych are from a bigger work, published in German as Mauer Park. The first piece, Friedrichsstrasse, was of greatest interest to me, given that two weeks ago I walked down the street from Unter den Linden to Checkpoint Charlie.  Wagner describes that path in great detail and clearly explains why the areas that were formerly East Berlin appear much more affluent and well-maintained than the areas that were formerly West Berlin.  

As for myself, the difference between now and 1980, when I first visited Berlin, is gargantuan.  At that time the U6 stations Mitte and Friedrichstrasse were ghost-stations, through which Weet Berlin trains travelled but did not stop.  Now they are bustling with Friedrichstrasse being a main intersection.  Above ground, however, the intersection between Friedstrasse and Unter den Linden is a disaster area.  If you follow my twitter account, you will have found me lamenting a couple of weeks ago …

Berlin, this is not the Unter Den Linden I came to see

 Wagner explains 

There is little to be seen for the moment of the allegedly legendary crossroads of Friedrichstraße and Unter den Linden (once famed for Café Bauer and the pre-war Café Kranzler). A Babylonian building site and a labyrinth of construction fences have spread out, with power lines now runing above ground atop battlement-like steel constructions.

The cause of this disruption – the building of the U5 extension. Apparently Unter den Linden will be restored by 2016.

The other two pieces in Berlin Triptych document Schönhäuser Allee and the Café M, obviously a favourite haunt of the author. There is a distinct sense of nostalgia in this latter piece, in that the increased commercialism, new decor and modernised menu have changed the mood forever.

The pace of transition in Berlin is breathtaking. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much scaffolding and so many cranes on a city tour before.

How many cranes do you see?

 

This is nothing new as a reading of Rory MacLean’s Berlin, Imagine a City, proves. 500 years of city history recounted through word portraits of 24 key individuals.  Written this way, MacLean said at the Edinburgh Book Festival, as he is not impressed by parochial representations of place.  He wants the reader to feel what it was like, building empathy and understanding for the individuals concerned.  He wants his reader to ask, how would I have behaved?

Some characters are well-documented in historical records while for others there is nothing.  So, for example, the opening chapter which takes us back to 1469 and the undocumented life of Konrad von Kölln, a medieval minstrel, is put together using various secondary sources and a lot of imagination.  Next up is a chapter about the Scottish Colin Albany and life in Berlin during the 30 Years War and the first time, in this book at least, when Berlin was overrun and destroyed.  More familiar history appears as the book progresses: Frederick the Great, the founder of Prussia, Schinkel, the architect who build Frederick’s Berlin, still very much in evidence. The ladies are represented with chapters about Lili Neuss (representative of the repressed working class in the industrialise 19th century), Leni Riefstahl (Nazi propagandist) and Marlene Dietrich (non-Nazi).  Literature is represented with chapters about Margarete Böhme, Christopher Isherwood and Bertolt Brecht. Fittingly too, pages are devoted to David Bowie, a man who has reinvented himself as many times – if not more – than Berlin itself.  Moving to Berlin in late 70’s to escape the cocaine-induced paranoia of the Thin White Duke, not only did he find himself but he also penned Heroes – a song which played a key role in the fall of the wall.  How?  You’ll have to read the book!

Really you should. It is wonderful.  The book of my summer. Politics, industry, architecture, literature and music – the very fabric of life are all interwoven to form a tapestry of Berlin through the ages.   MacLean also backs up the arguments of the first two writers in this post, that Berlin’s identity is based on its own volatility (and thus so hard to capture contemporaneously. See footnote.)    When asked at the Edinburgh Book Festival, what next for Berlin, MacLean responded with who knows?  What my book shows is that the power of individual imagination can shape a place for good or ill. 

City of Rumor 3stars.GIF / Berlin Triptych 3stars.GIF / Berlin, Imagine A City Five_Stars.GIF

 

Footnote: At the author signing I put forward Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s idea that it is impossible to write about Berlin until you have left it. MacLean, who now lives in London, nodded. I found it very difficult, he said. That’s why I had to write a history.

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And so the day dawns on which Edinburgh Book Festival starts for me.  Unusually I missed the first week, but then I was rather distracted! i will, however, be making up for lost time during week two. Whatever I’m expecting I can assure you it will be nothing like the festival of Mark McCrum’s invention (or I do hope not).

The small fictional literary festival at Mold-on-Wold comes complete with its own programme, and sparks fly from the outset. Bryce Peabody, a savage literary critic, has just decimated Dan Dickson’s latest novel.  Not content with that he decides to attend Dickson’s event and call him to task during the Q&A.  Such a nice man. Later it becomes apparent that this is the warm-up for his own event the following day, when he’s going to dish some dirt that will set off real fireworks …..

Is it such a surprise that he is found dead in his bed, before he can do so?

Enter Francis Meadowes, author of the crime series featuring George Brathwaite, an amateur sleuth.  Meadowes, in the right place at the right time, finds himself investigating Peabody’s death, using his fictional alter-ego’s methods. It all gets rather meta,  in the most delicious way.

This isn’t some cozy little murder mystery, the sort I might write for my clever-clogs detective, George Brathwaite, for the amusement of a bunch of readers, who might freak out if they saw a road accident, let alone a murder. Actual people are dying here.

Of course, everyone has a motive for wanting Peabody dead: authors he has savaged, ex-partners he has betrayed,  the ex-partner of his current amour.  There are so many grudges against him, it’s hard to keep count.  

While Peabody may be a vitriolic man, is there any real poison in McCrum’s pen?  I’m not sure.  McCrum is an established journalist, ghost writer and non-fiction author who has chosen to self-publish his first novel.  Economics seems the motivating force behind that decision. As for the literary luvvies with which the novel is populated, they are pretty ghastly (and probably very recognisable) literary types.  The audience doesn’t escape the satire either.  However, there does appear to be a particular bite in the portrayal of the festival director ….

In the end though, despite Meadowes’s protestations against coziness, there is a very Agatha feel to the mystery: it’s set in the countryside, everyone has a motive, and some of it is a bit implausible,  Neither is the real perpetrator that difficult to spot.  Like all good Agatha’s the climax is a set piece.

This was not the way Francis had planned it – or wanted it.  Brathwaite would have hated a set-up like this – as near as dammit to the traditional ‘group denouement’ of the Golden Age.

Well, if the fictional detective wasn’t happy, I was.  I enjoyed the setup, the satire and the meta …  And now I’m really in the mood to enjoy the world’s greatest literary festival, where none of these backroom petty rivalries exist … do they?

35_stars.GIF

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2014)

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As we approach the end of #anzlitmonth 2014 I decided it was time to revisit an author I discovered during the 2012 event.  I rated Chris Womersley’s Bereft so highly, I nominated it for the Not The Booker Prize.  While I enjoyed his recent release, Cairo, just as much, it’s not as literary.  To borrow a term from Graham Greene, it is “an entertainment”.

Cairo is not in Egypt.  It is a famous apartment block in Fitzroy, Melbourne, which once upon a time  was a bit of a dump, a place inhabited by drug-addicted bohemians and the novel’s protagonist, 17 year old Tom.  He has just left home to live in his dead aunt’s flat.  Young, naive, and itching to experience the delights of city life, Tom is soon befriended by a to-him-glamorous couple who widen his circle of friends (to include criminals and heroine addicts) and gradually suck him into their scheme to steal Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria.

At which point fiction meets fact because that painting was stolen in 1986, only to be returned intact 17 days later.  The theft remains an unsolved mystery and Womersley has capitalised on that historical gap to flesh out the story.  There is much to be enjoyed here, particularly about art and its intrinsic value.  Tom is a budding author and he’s writing his story with hindsight.  We know, therefore, that he’s not dragged down into the gutter by his new acquaintances; that he is older and wiser at the end of his bildungsroman.  This makes it possible to enjoy the ride without too much anxiety.  Not that the story is lacking moments of menace. There are a couple of dangerous villains and there is a murder.  Also an enjoyable farce when Tom’s family make a sudden reappearance.  And, for a story based on well-known facts, a totally unexpected ending. 

An entertainment, indeed.  Womersley has duly been added to my completist reading list.

3stars.GIF

This post is part of Australia and New Zealand Literature Month hosted by Kim at Reading Matters.

Anzlitmonth.JPG

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I do enjoy a good homage novel but it’s not everyone that can write them and when it comes to Jane Austen, the crop is abundant but not necessarily grade A  …. On a scale of A to E, previous reads include Lynn Shepherd’s Murder in Mansfield Park (A) and P D James’s Death comes to Pemberley (E).  How will the most recent batch stack up?

Jo Baker’s Longbourn (2013) is easily the most original.  Like Shepherd, she has played with the template. She has taken us to the servant’s quarters, telling the story of Pride and Prejudice from the viewpoint of the lady’s maid, Sarah.  Except that Sarah is also washer woman, cleaning woman, yard-sweep and a few other things besides, the consequences of which play havoc with her poor hands.  Life in the servants’ quarters is illuminating, full of household maintenance tips from the past.  As a tea-drinker, I was fascinated by the usefulness of old tea-leaves.

As fans of Pride and Prejudice know, the Bennetts were not rich but their life described from Sarah’s point-of-view is certainly comfortable, enviable, if somewhat empty.  The tea-parties and balls hardly glamorous for the servants, rather occasions for hard graft, additional chores to be fitted into an already full schedule, complete with waiting-up duties which reduced the already paltry hours available for sleep. 

Life at the beck and call of the Bennetts is not easy but not without room for adventure.  Sarah may be kept busy but there’s still time for romance – in fact, she attracts the attention of Bingley’s exotic ex-slave man-servant and a mysterious stranger, who arrives, as if from nowhere, to take up service in the Bennett’s household.  

By creating a novel focused on details which Austen mentioned in the passing, if at all, (the Napoleonic wars, money making in the colonies), Longbourn has a broader view of life in Regency England than Austen’s novel of the chattering classes.  The downside for me, however, was the tendency to excess and I’m asking myself was it necessary for Wickham to be so wicked, or for Mr Bennett to be so imperfect?  Even Jane and Elizabeth become slightly imperious following their marriages.  I will accept all that but the subplot involving the housekeeper’s husband, specifically his death, went too far. I’m willing to change my mind if someone can show where Austen hinted as such things …..

The Borough Press have commissioned the retelling of Austen’s six major novels in contemporary settings. The series launched in October 2013 with Joanna Trollope’s retelling of Sense and Sensibility.  Now how can I say this kindly?  This is the weakest of the three novels under discussion today (though not as bad as Death at Pemberley).  Knowing the remit that Borough Press has given to the authors –  must keep the characters, must keep the narratie arc – I reckon that Trollope had her pen nib capped before she started.   I mean in our welfare state, would a widow with three daughters be so entirely reliant upon the beneficence of her male relations?  For that reason, this story never felt entirely feasible and the modern technology – the headphones, the mobile phones, etc – felt like a veneer.  In its defence though, Trollope makes the most of personality differences between Eleanor and Marianne and the girls behave as contempories would.  So Marianne’s passion for Willoughby is not just emotional, it is physical.  Neither is Eleanor simply an emotional crutch for her family – she becomes a working girl, lending economic support as well.  But the greatest pleasure in this retelling is Margaret who transforms from a background figure in Austen to a typical 21st century, precocious, know-it-all, interfere-in-it-all teenager.  I wouldn’t want her at my kitchen table, but I enjoyed the cheek and insolence in this audio book.

And so to the cream of the crop.  I’ve had a soft spot for Northanger Abbey since it was my O-level text.  I’ve reread it a few time since, though never the Mysteries of Udolpho, the gothic novel which it satirises.  (Later this year for definite …) So I was looking forward to McDermid’s satire on a satire.  She’s gone one better, having chosen to satirise that contemporary phenomenon, the vampire novel.  Not only that, she has moved the novel north from Bath and its season of balls to Edinburgh and its season of plays, concerts and books.  There’s no greater social occasion than the Edinburgh Festival and for bookish Catherine, Charlotte Square and the book festival is full of adventure.  Bella Thorpe is deliciously dreadful and her brother John an insufferable bore.  Speaking recently at Glasgow’s Aye Write McDermid said that she had been given strict instructions not to kill anyone off, but you can tell that her pen must have been feeling murderous when she wrote his scenes!  Love me, love my car could be John Thorpe’s motto, a modern riff on the love me, love my carriage of Austen’s original.

Northanger Abbey is the Tilney’s ancestral home in the Scottish borders and Colonel Tilney a bullying old man.  Ellie is as sweet and charming as ever though Henry is not as foppish as I remember his original.  (Or am I mixing him up with Edward Ferrars?) Actually he is quite an appealing well-read young fellow.  Yes, I can see what Catherine sees in him.  Although, of course, her overactive imagination which goes into overdrive apropos the death of the colonel’s wife almost ruins everything.  But it’s not her vampiric fantasies that cause her abrupt banishment but a malicious rumour – a twist as sudden as it is modern, for indeed, nothing else would estrange the right-wing colonel so effectively.  It’s along the same lines as one of the plot updates in Longbourn but McDermid isn’t salacious with it and so does not offend Austen’s spirit.

I listened to the unabridged audio, narrated by Jane Collingwood and I loved it from the first sentence.  So much so, that I bought myself the book.  Reading that sentence now it would be so easy to immerse myself into Catherine’s adventures once more.

It was a source of constant disappointment to Catherine Morland that her life did not more closely ressemble her books.

In McDermid’s retelling it does and there’s no disappointment to be had at all.

Longbourn (B)35_stars.GIF / Sense and Sensibility (C) 3stars.GIF / Northanger Abbey (A)4_stars.GIF

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Shortlisted for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award

Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

You may remember I was ever so worried about Lila’s future, earlier in the year: Lila being the best friend of the narrator in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy, the brillian child whose parents refused to educate her and who decides that the only way out of grinding poverty is to marry up, financially speaking. The narrator, Elena, is luckier in that her parents were willing to make the financial sacrifices required for her to remain in education.  I also found myself worrying on her behalf.  Was she, like many before her and since, about to throw away her advantage by getting carried away with her boyfriend?

Thankfully, he has more sense than her.  

Lila’s story is not so straightforward and her marriage is an abusive one.  This is the Naples of the late 50’s and early 60’s and Lila can expect no support from her family.  Still, a few bruises won”t knock her down. She is the brains behind her husband’s commercial enterprises and she soon finds ways to return the abuse.  Like the – shall we say – creatively re-engineered bridal picture of herself, which hangs in the up-market shoe boutique, Lila is iconic.  Though not very likeable, becoming downright unpleasant as time goes on.  Everything about her life is dramatic and definitely not in a good way.  I actually began to wonder why her husband, Stefano, put up with her for so long.

Lila’s dramas leave Elena playing second-fiddle.  I get the impression, though I can’t say why, that Elena is the plain one. She’s certainly bespectacled.  Clever though having to work at it.  The setting designed to show off Lila’s dazzling diamond? And yet, the way I’m thinking at the end of book two, of more value.

I breathed a sign of relief when she won a scholarship to Pisa and was removed from Lila’s trajectory.  At last, she’ll be able to strike out on her own, giving her time to heal from the emotional damage caused by Lila’s callousness.  But Elena is nothing, if not self-deprecating.  

This is more or less what happened to me between the end of 1963 and 1965. How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quietens down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on a page and it’s done.

Except it obviously isn’t.  Something is holding Elena back from fully engaging with what should be the time of her life. Somethng that involved her first love, Lila, and a summer holiday with consequences.  

By the end of this installment, however, Elena seems to have come to terms with the past, and has a fiancé of her own (although he is rather distant).  I am rooting for her.  Lila’s marital dramas have left me exhausted and I wonder at her capacity to inspire unswerving loyalty in those she treats badly.   We know she disappears in book 3 (this is the prologue  to book 1) but I don’t really care at this stage why, when or how.  I want to see Elena emerge out of Lila’s shadow and be happy without her.  I doubt that will happen – while this trilogy is providing a captivating social history of mid-20th Neapolitan life – it is primarily the story of a friendship and without Lila, there would be nothing to document.

35_stars.GIF

My overwhelming impression at this stage, though – so much life, passion and drama in the lives of these two women, and they’re only in their early twenties.  Seems like the young ‘uns of today don’t have the copyright on growing up early.

 

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When a book revealing the secrets of crime fiction , written by multiple Australian authors, dropped through the letter box earlier this year, I determined that 2014 would be the year for essay reading.  Having scoured the table of contents and discovered that I’d heard of only one of the 22 authors featured – Michael Robotham – and, even then hadn’t read him, I felt a bit non-plussed.  Where was I to start?

Given that the black humour of the book’s title – If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you – makes my toes curl with pleasure, I decided I’d start with the essay with the most pleasing title.  The crime-fiction-loving rock chick in me adjudged that to be essay #5 – I know it’s only noir (but I like it) written by Lenny Bartulin.  I suspected I was about to meet a kindred spirit ….

Noir is timeless, like jazz, like rock ‘n’ roll.  The thrill of reading, say, The Big Sleep or The Blonde on the Street Corner or Double Indemnity for the first time has never left me.  And apart from the stories themselves, it was the writing that blew me away: all that style, the sharp dialogue, the cynical humour, the flawless craft.

It was writing with intent and purpose, writing that delivered and gave the reader real pleasure.  It had bottom-end.  Weight. It could take you into tight-bends, at speed and you were never going to flip.

Yes, all that and more and Bartulin details many of those other reasons in his essay and shows how Chandler, Cain et al inspired him to continue in their vein: this despite the challenges of creating character-driven but honest and authentic plots, the necessity of giving characters heart, blood and muscle before they can show the author where the story is going, and the panic of being about two-thirds of the way through my first novel when one day, just like that, the earth split open beneath my feet and I found myself plummeting into molten lava.  … I thought my novel was a waste of space, absolutely terrible, and I had no idea how to finish it.

He was given a piece of advice: The solution is in your book.

At which point I was curious to find said debut and sample it with the intention to critique according to the conventions of noir that Bartulin outlines in his essay and to see if the problems he had hinted at were visible in the finished product.

All such rational thought left me when I discovered the US title of Bartulin’s debut novel: Death by the Book. Who? Where? Why? Funnily enough, the 3 questions Bartulin asks himself as he writes.  And no, it has nothing to do with the near brush with death permanent injury I had last night when one of my towering stacks toppled over with such force that it missed me by inches, even though I was a good six feet away ….

… although there must be plenty of towering stacks in Jack Susko’s second-hand bookshop. Now I know I’ve met a kindred spirit – who knew this reading trail was going to lead me straight to a bookshop and offer a salutary lesson on the dangers of obsessive book collecting.

Jack Susko is approached one day and made an offer he can’t refuse. A wealthy collector offers him 50 dollars per copy for as many copies as he can find of the work of a certain obscure poet. Easy money. Deal! Except that events start spiralling out of control when Jack finds himself in the middle of a bitter family feud, seduced by a blacker than noir femme fatale in the middle of a bitter divorce, life and limb endangered and that’s before his less than innocent past raises its ugly head. …

It’s all action, all authentically character-driven and if Bartulin got stuck 2/3rds of the way through, I can’t see the joins.  My only critique relates to the finale which is a little too – shall we say – exuberant? I can’t actually figure out how the good cop knows where to be …..

… but I’m glad he’s there, because he secures the continuation of what has become a trilogy. Expect my discovery of Bartulin to continue.

Death by the Book (US) / A Deadly Business (UK) 35_stars.GIF

This post is part of Australia and New Zealand Reading Month, hosted by Kim at Reading Matters.

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Earlier this year I was lucky enough to hear Graeme Simsion talk about the real life inspiration for his best-selling Rosie Project: a former IT colleague, geek and misfit,  who became a best friend.  Not that we have to see Don Tillman as a portrait of  this friend.  Simsion emphasised that his characters are 1/3 someone he knows, 1/3 himself and 1/3 made up.  Neither are the events in The Rosie Project real in all their details but some real-life events have been given what-if makeovers.

While readers may recognise symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome in Don, the author was careful not to use the A word in his novel.  Had he done so, he reckons that his readers would have become uninterested in the characters and the comedy.  That would be a real shame  because Simsion’s debut novel is both character-driven and very, very funny.   A joy to read, in fact.

I’m not sure I entirely bought into the premise.  I had niggling doubts about whether Rosie, as large as character as Don but in a different way, would fall for him as she did.  That aside, I enjoyed everything about Don’s quest for a wife and the various ways in which he almost snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

I am looking forward to the sequel, The Rosie Effect, due in September.

3stars.GIF

I asked the author to sign my copy in preparation for a giveaway, which is happening now that it is #anzlitmonth on Reading Matters.  So, if you’d like to win a copy signed “To Lizzy’s Lucky Reader.  Well done! Graeme Simsion”, all you need to do is answer two questions.

Simsion carries a selection of coloured pens in his pocket, fastidiously arranged, just as Don would do it, in Richard-of-York-Gave-Battle-In-Vain sequence.

Didn’t he say that Don is 1/3 himself? Before he signs, Simsion asks the reader for their preferred colour. So question 1) Which colour did I ask my book to be signed in. (Clue: I have always loved this colour.  I didn’t wait to become old before dressing – frequently from head to toe – in it.) 2) Which colour would you have asked him to use?

Answers in comments olease. Winner will be chosen at random on Monday 12th May.  Competition open worldwide.

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