Wonderful Wednesdays are a tradition when to comes to German Literature Month.  When kind sponsors of the event offer us books to giveaway, then Wednesdays are the day on which we do just that.

Week One of the 2014 German Literature Month is Award Winners Week and I’m delighted to be able to offer two hot-off-the-press prize winners from New Vessel Press.

I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar won the 2012 Austrian Alpha Prize for Literature.

Twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro has spent the last two years of his life living as a hikikomori—a shut-in who never leaves his room and has no human interaction—in his parents’ home in Tokyo. As Hiro tentatively decides to reenter the world, he spends his days observing life around him from a park bench. Gradually he makes friends with Ohara Tetsu, a middle-aged salaryman who has lost his job but can’t bring himself to tell his wife, and shows up every day in a suit and tie to pass the time on a nearby bench. As Hiro and Tetsu cautiously open up to each other, they discover in their sadness a common bond. Regrets and disappointments, as well as hopes and dreams, come to the surface until both find the strength to somehow give a new start to their lives. This beautiful novel is moving, unforgettable, and full of surprises. The reader turns the last page feeling that a small triumph has occurred.

You can read an excerpt of the translation by Sheila Dickie here.

Who is Martha? by Marjana Gaponenko won the 2013 Adalbert von Chamisso Prize.

96-year-old ornithologist Luka Levadski foregoes treatment for lung cancer and moves from Ukraine to Vienna to make a grand exit in a luxury suite at the Hotel Imperial. He reflects on his past while indulging in Viennese cakes and savoring music in a gilded concert hall. Levadski was born in 1914, the same year that Martha – the last of the now-extinct passenger pigeons – died. Levadski himself has an acute sense of being the last of a species. He may have devoted much of his existence to studying birds, but now he befriends a hotel butler and another elderly guest, who also doesn’t have much time left, to share in the lively escapades of his final days. This gloriously written tale, in which Levadski feels “his heart pounding at the portals of his brain,” mixes piquant wit with lofty musings about life, friendship, aging and death.

You can read an excerpt of the translation by Arabella Spencer here.

Reasons to enter this giveaway: They both sound delicious. (May I enter too?).  They should appeal to anyone participating in #readwomen2014 and will give a kick start to the new initiative #womenintranslation. Plus both titles, if reviewed, will earn 2 entries into the German Literature Month Pick and Mix prize draw. (More info here.)

If you wish to enter, simply leave a comment saying which title you would like to review during German Literature Month and where you would review it. The winners will be selected randomly and notified on Sunday 5.10.2014. Books will be sent directly by the publisher.  Competition open internationally.

P.S Hop over to Caroline’s place. There are more giveaways to be had.

EDIT: Link to Caroline’s place now working.


Good morning/afternoon/evening,  German(-language) literature lovers. It’s time to look through your TBR piles and hunt out all the German literature you can find. #germanlitmonth is returning for year four!

In years past Caroline and I have structured the whole month for guidance, but now that a wealth of ideas and reviews exists in the blogosphere (see footnote), we no longer think that’s necessary. This year we’re each going to host a themed week, leaving the rest of the month for you to read as you please. However, to make things more playful, we’re incorporating an optional pick and mix!

The overall structure of the month looks like this.

Nov 1-2 Introductions and reading plans
Nov 3-9 Award Winners Week (hosted by Lizzy)
Nov 10-23 Read as You Please
Nov 24-30 Joseph Roth Week (hosted by Caroline, with the Literature and War group read, Flight Without End, on the 29th)

At any time during the month you can pick and mix by reading and posting about any of the categories listed below, Each review will receive at least one entry into a prize draw. If the review fits multiple categories, you will earn multiple entries. For example if you participate in Caroline’s Literature and War read, you will get two entries: 1 for category 5 and another for category 6.

Pick and Mix Categories

1) Read and review an award winner.
2) Read and review a work that is not a novel.
3) Read and review a recommendation from German Literature Months 1-3. (See footnote)
4)To commemorate the 25th anniversary of The Fall of the Wall, read and review a work relating to the GDR or the Berlin Wall.
5) To commemorate armistice day, read and review a work relating to the First World War
6) Read and review a work written by or relating to Joseph Roth
7) Read a work published in German original or in translation during 2014.

For the purposes of clarity, all reviews must relate to works originally written in German, regardless of the author’s nationality. The winner of the pick and mix prize will be announced during the first week of December.

Apart from that, there are no other rules. You can participate in the themed weeks and the pick and mix as much or as little as you wish. You can do your own thing too, if you so chose. If you don’t have a blog, you are welcome to review on librarything or goodreads or similar or even write a guest post for one of the host blogs.

The main focus of the month is to share and enjoy German-language literature. We hope you decide to join us.


Footnote – Indices of reviews from previous years

German Literature Month 2011 
German Literature Month 2012 
German Literature Month 2013

Summary (because this is likely to be a very long post): Bloody Scotland 2014 was pure, dead brilliant! 

Bloody Scotland is Scotland’s first crime-writing festival, returning in 2014 for its third iteration.  It takes place 40 miles from me and is an easy 40-minute drive.  I visited in its 1st year, skipped it last year, but decided to go back this year because there were a couple of non-discussion events that proved irresistible.  Let’s see if you can spot them.

The festival took place in 4 locations in Stirling and my events meant I visited them all.  As you will see, this gave me the added bonus of a darn good workout, which should have translated to happiness on the scales this morning.  No chance because I discovered an Austrian restaurant in the passing, and the opportunity for authentic schnitzel and chips was not to be missed.  As Oscar Wilde once said, I can resist everything, except temptation. 

Venue 1, Event 1: McLaren Suite, Stirling Highland Hotel  Danielle Ramsay and Nele Neuhaus

I have attended many a business conference in the Stirling Highland Hotel.  It’s very Scottish with many a tartan decor, but on Saturday morning it was host to Danielle Ramsay (English) and Nele Neuhaus (German).  The event was chaired by Jenny Brown.  I haven’t read Ramsay’s novels, set in Whitley Bay, Yorkshire but am more than a little curious now.  After the first novel had been published, she was approached by residents of the area who kept commenting on how well she understood the gangsterly goings on in the area.  She had, of course, made it all up!  As you would expect, I have read Neuhaus’s novels; Snow White Must Die, reviewed here and Big Bad Wolf, of which more to follow.

Venue 2, Event 2: Stirling Castle, Medieval Murder In The Castle

And so began the workout, up through the historic town to the castle on the rock.  What a venue!

The event was included in the price of castle entry.  £14, a bit steep like the hill but the guided tour of the castle was also included.  I haven’t been in Stirling Castle for years, but given that it is subject of an ongoing (?) £12 million renovation to restore it to how it was in the day’s of Mary, Queen of Scots,  I can say that entry is worth every penny.  What a stunning project!  

In 1452, the  castle was the venue of the heinous murder of William, Earl of Douglas, stabbed 26 times and thrown from a castle window,

125 Bloody Scotlanders attended the tour, which took us to the renovated Great Hall.

Here the political tensions of the day were explained.  Thereafter, we were taken and to the site of the murder and the place where the body landed. (The Douglas Garden, funnily enough.)

Now the perpetrator was well-known.  It was the hot-tempered King James II himself, and, of course, he got away with it.  But what would have happened, if the murder had been committed today?

Cue the Chapel Royal and instruction by Return to Scene, experts in forensic science who help the Scottish police to solve contemporary crime.


Venue 3 Albert Halls

Early Sunday morning and it was time to dress up as a classic crime novel!  Orion Books are reissuing lots and lots of classic crime novels in e-books format (and paper for those die-hards like me who still haven’t taken to this e-reading milarkey).  The Murder Room is a website devoted to this project, but during Bloody Scotland it was the dressing up area with a prize for the best interpretation of a classic title.  There were lots and lots of  entries …

and I, worrying what might happen to the incriminating evidence if I chose to interpret The Pub Crawler, opted instead for The Case of The Sulky Girl!


Event 3: Sophie Hannah introduces The Monogram Mysteries

I bought this ticket about 5 minutes before the event.  I hadn’t been planning on it, but Sophie Hannah is one of those authors I been meaning to read since forever.  So here we have an author I haven’t read, talking about an author I decided to read no more. (Agatha Christie’s Flight to Frankfurt was simply dreadful.). Not only did Hannah persuade me to read her new Hercule Poirot novel, but she’s also persuaded me to give Christie another go.  I mean how can you ignore this reaction to the end of Murder on The Orient Express?


Bookwitch has published a fantastic write-up of Sophie Hannah event here.

Event 4: Lin Anderson and Return to Scene

in many ways, this was a rerun of the talk at Stirling Castle from the day before, but I had a better seat and a better view.  Haznat suitting, fingerprinting, DNA swabbing, it was all happening.  By the way, this fingerprint is real!

Alongside tales of a windy Orkney and two unfortunate German tourists who pitched their tents too close to the cliff edge during a gale.  They didn’t survive.  Lin Anderson said that one of her readers had complained that this story was too far-fetched.  It is the only true story in her novel Paths of The Dead.

Venue 4 Event 5: It was inevitable.  After a weekend of mayhem and murder, I ended up here.


Thankfully, I hadn’t been arraigned on a murder charge, but the Beast of Birkenshaw had.  The finale and the pièce de résistance was a specially commissioned drama, performed live in the Sheriff’s Court.  (No pictures allowed.) The text was based on original trial transcripts and was interwoven with music of the day. Peter Manuel was convicted of 7 murders, and, in July 1958 was one of the final men in Scotland to hang for his crimes.

This was a powerful ending to the festival – a reminder that while crime fiction may be an entertainment, the subject matter is anything but.

Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. …
and I’m wondering why?

Not that this is a bad novel, far from it.  But I wouldn’t put it on the same pedestal as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.  What’s the problem?  It is far too long.  OK, at 771 pages, it is 300 pages shorter than that other Pulitzer prize winner, Gone With The Wind but GWTW has no implausible plot-twists and pages and pages of repetitive alcohol and drug binges.

Where was the editor?  AWOL with Theo’s passport, I suspect.  A missed opportunity.  A good novel could have been turned into a great one with a bit more control and a lot less verbiage.

Now that that’s off my chest, let’s focus on the good points.

The first section which sets up the novel is superb.  Thereafter, there’s a gradual downhill gradient with distinct plateaux along the way, which give the feeling of reading for ages and never getting anywhere plot-wise.  That said I read the whole in just over a week, which means it’s very readable.  Nor am I’m employing that word as an insult.

The character portrait of motherless Theo, suffering from survivor guilt and post-traumatic stress syndrome, getting into the wrong company and doing his best to squander the opportunities that are handed him, makes me both anxious and furious. Because for every louse in his life (his father, Boris), there is a benefactor (Mrs Barbour, Hobie).  Unfortunately those mind-altering substances won’t loosen their grip and Theo’s mind is incapable of accepting the good things when they come his way.

His character had been indelibly marked by the tragedy of his mother’s death and Fabritius’s painting of  The Goldfinch which came into his hands at the same time.  Indeed his very identity is bound up with that painting, which, because he effectively stole it from a bombed-out museum, he must keep hidden.

How could I have believed myself a better person, a wiser person, a more elevated and valuable and worthy-of-living person on the basis of my secret uptown? Yet I had.  The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary.  it was support and vindication, it was sustenance and sum.  It was the keystone that held the whole cathedral up.

Suffice to say, when he discovers its loss, he loses the plot and thus begins a downward spiral an adventure that descends into the preposterous.  Tartt has to commit murder to get him out of the fix he lands himself in – in more ways than one.

The point is that Theo believes he is pursued by bad luck and, like the Goldfinch chained to its perch, he cannot fly unfettered.  Ironically it’s not until he resolves the conundrum of returning the painting that his luck changes – massively. fortuitously and far too conveniently for me …

… yet it is hard to see how Theo can reach the point of redemption without that startling denouement.   It’s Dickensian, that’s what.  As indeed are the echoes of Great Expectations and the characters, the good, the bad and the ugly.  Not that they are grotesques  (well, perhaps Lucius Reeve and Boris).  The main characters are finely drawn and nuanced. Indeed this and the strong evocation of place (New York, The Nevada Desert, Amsterdam) are the novel’s stronger points.

And Theo’s not all bad.  He has a generous heart – perhaps he deserves a shot at redemption after all?


When I read a homage, I usually have context through prior knowledge of the author to whom homage is being paid.  Apart from one short story by Virginia Woolf, all I know of her is the inevitable: a member of the Bloomsbury set, who drowned herself …

… to be pulled from the depths and reanimated in Maggie’s Gee latest comic novel.  Comedy is not something I associate with Woolf, but Gee, whose Ph. D is Woolfian, assured us at the Edinburgh Book Festival that, when she was well, Woolf had an enormous zest for life. Gee, unhappy with the stereotypical depiction of a depressive Woolf, wanted to rehabilitate her. This is why one of Virginia’s first acts after her – shall we say – resurrection, is to buy herself an enormous hat.

But how does Woolf end up in Manhattan? She is simply wished into life by author Angela Lamb, who is researching Woolf’s original manuscripts for her paper: Virginia Woolf: A Long Shadow, to be delivered at a writers’ conference in IstanbulAlmost a century has passed since her death, and so there is some catching up for Virginia to do.  For Lamb this is a golden opportunity to really get to know her idol and write the most informed paper ever.  But be careful what you wish for …..

The relationship is fractious – hilariously so for the reader, uncomfortably so for the two women.  There are rifts due to class background: Virginia accepting Angela’s help as self-evident; Angela resenting Virginia’s expensive tastes and lack of gratitude.  There are melancholy moments too when Virginia must face the consequences of her suicide.  Life moved on for her husband Leonard, but, of course, she knows nothing of that.  How is Angela to explain?

She makes a better job of her relationship with Virginia than with her teenage daughter, Gerda, who she has dumped in a boarding school to swan off to the Big Apple and her research. (Oh yes, Angela like Virginia is a complex and not completely likeable character.)  Communication with Gerda is via email, but it’s intermittent at best, and just when Gerda’s troubles at the school become unbearable, non-existent.  At which point Gerda run off to New York to find her mother … 

… just as her mother sets off with Virginia to the conference in Istabul.

I had an anxiety attack on Gerda’s behalf.  I would have known better, had I recognised the allusions to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ice Queen (Andersen’s fairy tales being Gee’s favourite childhood reading).  As it was I was surprised by some of the plot twists that followed.  A knowledge of Woolf’s oeuvre may have helped me anticipate at this point (Orlando, Between The Acts, To The Lighthouse amongst others) but to quote Gee “I don’t want to write novels that are games for the few“.  Prior knowledge of Woolf’s oeuvre is not required. There is plenty of plot to enjoy.

Beneath the fantasy and the globe-trotting adventure, however, lie more writerly concerns.  Gerda is bullied because she is bookish and wishes to become a writer.  Angela is a bestselling writer, though not a literary one. Virginia is a mega-star, who, in the course of the novel, once prejudices have been overcome, becomes not only an inspiration, but a mentor to both.  Due to her untimely suicide, Virginia, at first, has no idea of her posthumous success, and so we see her plagued with doubts about the value of her works.  At the writers’ conference in Istabul, she gives a brief self-deprecating career synopsis.  She was privileged.  She never wrote to survive but would she have written even if she hadn’t had that advantage?

I would have written.  Somehow I would have found my voice.  I would have found a way to be heard, published …. And so must you.  And so will you … The young woman beside me tells me that now it is easier to self-publish, but some of you are ashamed to do this.  Remember, nearly all my books were self-published”.

With those words, Woolf, through Gee (first female chair of the Royal Society of Literature), becomes a mentor to a whole new generation of writers, and, perhaps a new generation of readers (myself included).


Perhaps you are a Woolf aficionado and wish to know if the novel would stack up for you?  Read Simon’s review and interview  with Maggie Gee at Shiny New Books.


The read pile for the past two months looks pretty meagre, but then it’s not telling the whole story.

First of all, Hans Fallada’s Little Man, What Now? isn’t pictured.  I had to return it to the library.  

Secondly, I wish to emphasise that for the first time in over 20 years I have read a full-length German novel, Goetheruh, in German!  It’s good to know that I still can.

Thirdly, I was on the road for 3 weeks. 

Fourthly, thanks to said travels, when I pick things up to read in situ, I’ve part-read another five books.  This gives me a head start for the shorter days and longer reading hours of September and October, and For the Record at the end of October should look a little more – shall we say – substantial.


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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