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Earlier this week this list  of 10 essential German novels, all written by men, started recirculating around Facebook. It’s not what you want to read during Women in Translation Month, is it?  So Tony from Tony’s Reading List and I curated the following alternative list:

1) Malina – Ingeborg Bachmann
Chosen by but not yet read by myself. Top of my German-lit TBR!

2) The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine – Alina Bronsky
Chosen and reviewed by myself.

3) Child of the Parish – Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
Chosen and reviewed by Tony.


4) Visitation – Jenny Erpenbeck
Chosen and reviewed by myself.

5) Summerhouse, Later – Judith Hermann
Chosen and reviewed by Tony.

6) The Artificial Silk Girl – Irmgard Keun
Chosen and reviewed (if somewhat negatively) by myself.

7) Blumenberg – Sybille Lewitscharoff
Chosen and reviewed by Tony.

8) Transit – Anna Seghers
Chosen by myself.  Shares top spot of my German-lit TBR with Malina.  Tony’s review is here.

9) The Mussel Feast – Birgit Vanderbeke
Chosen and reviewed by Tony.

10) Cassandra – Christa Wolf
Chosen and reviewed by Tony.

What do you think of our alternative list?  All titles are available in English translation, should you be tempted to read them. Is there another work that you would like to see included? If so, which title would you replace it with?

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As is now traditional here, I like to start Women in Translation Month with a list of the women in translation I have read during the past twelve months.  This year’s list consists of 19 books translated from 10 languages.  The titles of my favourite five are in bold, and, when you see them, you’ll realise that I can’t wait for another novel from Ayelet Gundar-Goshen!

Listed in the order I read them.

Hotel Bosphorus – Esmahan Aykol
Translated from Turkish by Ruth Whitehouse

Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Innocence Or Murder in Streep Street – Heda Margolius Kovaly
Translated from Czech by Alex Zucker

The Trap – Melanie Raabe
Translated from German by Imogen Taylor

The Decision – Britta Böhler
Translated from Dutch by Jeanette K Ringold

All Russians Love Birch Trees – Olga Grajsnowna
Translated from German by Eva Bacon

The Golden Yarn – Cornelia Funke
Translated from German by Oliver Latsch

The Boy – Wytske Versteeg
Translated from Dutch by Sarah Welling

The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George
Translated from German by Simon Pare

Craving – Ester Gerritsen
Translated from Dutch by Michele Hutchison

When the Doves Disappeared – Sofi Oksanen
Translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers

Rasputin and Other Ironies – Teffi
Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Rose France and Anne Marie Jackson

One Night, Markovitch – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Memoirs of A Polar Bear – Yoko Tawada (Review to follow)
Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky

The Story of My Teeth – Valeria Luiselli
Translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney

The Bird Tribunal – Agnes Ravatn
Translated from Norwegian by Rosie Hedger

Fever Dream – Samantha Schweblin
Translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal – Dorthe Nors
Translated from Danish by Misha Hoekstra

Go Went Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck (Review to follow)
Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky

You may have thought that July was a kind of inofficial German Literature Month given that my blogging consisted of reviews of 3 German novels, 1 Welsh novel set in Germany and one post about my recent literary tour of Schleswig-Holstein. It wasn’t meant to be that way but it’s what happens when I spend the first half of the month in Germany, and the second half of the month reviewing what I read and did there. So be it.

I do still have the second part of my literary tour of Schleswig-Holstein to report on, and there will be further German-lit posts during August, given that there are plenty of related events at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival. (12 days and counting!) But my reading has moved on because, if everything goes to plan, I will be at the festival for 12 of the 17 days, and I have a lot of reading to complete before then.

The festival, already the largest in the world, is bigger and wider-ranging than ever this year. In fact, you could say it has gone global because you don’t have to be in Edinburgh to take part. The free online How to Read A Novel reading course that they are delivering in conjunction with Edinburgh University, using this year’s James Tait Black Award shortlist to investigate key blocks within modern fiction – plot, characterisation, dialogue, setting – is now up and running. I’m currently working my way through the first module and am finding it most illuminating. I’m pretty sure that you can still enrol if you wish to join in.

Books Read 2017

Books read July 2017

I’ve also started my reading for the festival, having read 4 novels in preparation. You can see these at the bottom of the Books Read in July pile above. 3 were fantastic, whereas I feel rather cool towards the fourth. Perhaps Jenny Erpenbeck will warm me towards Go Went Gone at her event on the 20th.

That I didn’t love Erpenbeck’s latest took me completely by surprise, as did the fact that I was mesmerised by Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, July’s Book of the Month, which left me breatheless at times. I don’t read much science-fiction but may well read more if the Bradbury is a marker of the quality to expect. I wouldn’t know where to start though, so please leave any recommendations you have in comments.

Anyway my book festival is opening with a workshop on the Bradbury and my review will follow that. My final read for the festival this year is likely to be Medea by Euripides – the trigger for that being David Vann’s latest novel. This is why I love the Edinburgh Book Festival – it expands my reading horizons; this year both in time and space. From Greece in the 5th century B.C to Mars in 2026. You can’t say farther than that.

I enjoyed July, and August will be another good month. But until then, here is this month’s blogging and reading statistics update:

Blog Posts
The Invention of Curried Sausage – Uwe Timm
The Aftermath – Rhydian Brook
The Murderer In Ruins / The Wolf Children – Cay Rademacher
A Literary Tour of Schleswig-Holstein (1): Husum

2017 Reading Statistics
Total YTD: 64 read, 6 audio books, 7 DNF
July 2017: 8 read, 1 DNF

My love of Theodor Storm’s C19th novellas is well-documented on this blog, as is my admiration for his English translator, Denis Jackson, whose generous response to my Meet the Translator feature (1, 2, 3) is probably the German Literature Month highlight that will never be surpassed.

Last month I finally got the opportunity to visit Storm country, although with only 3 days, there was not enough time to visit a hallig or wander out to Hattstedt, the setting of Der Schimmelsreiter (Translated by Jackson as The Dykemaster). I did, however, walk 4km along the Husum dyke to the North Sea.

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View of Husum from the dyke

Storm, famously called Husum the grey town by the sea.  Well, there wasn’t much greyness in the 3 days I was there.  Husum presented itself most colourfully, and it would appear I’m not the only person to think so.

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The colourful town by the sea

With a harbour teaming with restaurants and bars serving wonderful fish dishes (best meal of the holiday for €7.00), centuries-old houses and cottages, many decorated with roses or lavender in bloom, and a café serving cakes to die for (my favourite find of the holiday), Husum is a lovely little place.

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It is, of course, made entirely special through its links to Theodor Storm, who lived just around the corner from my accommodation (literally!) . The tourist office makes it easy for those on a Storm pilgrimage, having designed a walk taking in 34 mostly Storm-related sites.  Here are a few highlights.

Firstly places where Storm lived and died.

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Secondly settings in Husum appearing in Storm’s novellas.

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The second set demonstrates the indivisibility of Storm’s narratives and the local landscape.  While Storm’s stories put Husum and the surrounding area on the map in the C19th, they continue to contribute to the success of the area down to this day. 14th September 2017 marks the bicentennial of his birth and Husum will be celebrating its most famous son with style. I’ll party along with the new Denis Jackson translation of Storm’s novella Grieshuus: Chronicle of A Family, which was pre-ordered just as soon as I heard about it!

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Translated from German by Peter Millar

After 1945 and 1946, the third part of my fictional exploration of post-war Hamburg reaches the bitterly cold winter of 1946 and the torridly hot summer of 1947, which seemed designed to inflict further suffering on the population of the devastated city.

The Murderer in Ruins, as ice-cold as the landscape,  is killing people and leaving their naked bodies amidst the rubble of Hamburg.  There are no identifying marks. Neither are there any reports of missing persons.  Not as strange as it sounds, given that Hamburg is full of displaced persons with little to no connection to the surviving home population.  The unfortunate chief inspector Stave is tasked with finding the killer, aided by the British officer, Lieutenant MacDonald, but where to start?

Based on a real case in which the four victims remained as unidentified as the killer, Rademacher’s novel reflects the frustration of a case with no leads, no clues in a city trying to reestablish the rule of  law.  After all, given recent body counts, what difference do 4 more bodies make?  The reader must be patient – very patient – as each assumed lead draws a blank.  But, as the author explained at Newcastle Noir, he has reconstructed the case fictionally in order to provide his own solution.  And so the resolution, in which the crimes of the present are inextricably linked with German crimes of the past,  depends on a chance observation ….

I admit, as a thriller, I struggled with the tortoise-like pace of the investigation, but, as a piece of historical fiction, I was bound by the detail of Rademacher’s reconstruction of post-war Hamburg and the psychologies of the characters. Stave, himself, is damaged goods, having lost his  wife in the fire-bombing of Hamburg, and his only son to the Nazis and the Eastern Front.  Despite their ideological estrangement, the father loves his son, desperately combing Hamburg main station for him whenever a train arrives with soldiers returning from the war.  His anxiety is palpable and can only increase when he discovers his son is a POW in Siberia ….

I found Stave a very sympathetic character.  Hamburg is, despite the weather, a hot bed of vice and black-marketeering, and he is a man who understands the importance of overlooking petty crimes to prevent being deflected from the main chase. However, racked with guilt about his wife, anxiety about his son, he is in need of a break. And in Anna, a mysterious aristocratic refugee and skilled black marketeer from East Prussia, it would appear he gets one.  It’s a relationship that seems destined for  greater things, if only he can forget that she tells him nothing of her past …

The exploration of East Prussia and the people who fled to avoid the “Ivans” is continued into the second novel of what will be a trilogy.  The Wolf Children is the collective name given to the mass of child refugees who flowed westwards.  Either orphaned or separated from their parents during the mass exodus at the end of the war, they lived a feral existence in Hamburg, learning to capitalise on opportunities presented by the black market or to engage in child prostitution.  They had their enemies and there was plenty of gang in-fighting,   So when the body of a teenage boy is found lying on top of an unexploded bomb in the harbour area of Hamburg, it is assumed that he is one of them.

Inspector Stave’s second case is a little easier than the first, in that he does at least identify the corpse.  Otherwise the waters are as murky as those of the Elbe, with his prospective Wolf Children witnesses being killed almost as soon as he has talked to them.

Once again I didn’t find the case as enthralling as the social history it explored. The identification of the murderer is quite well-signposted although the motivation for the boy’s killing would be utterly unbelievable if it wasn’t based on obscure historical fact. The things we do not know! Rademacher’s vision for these novels is greater than the murder mystery, and I would say that the scope of this second novel is to investigate the impact of war on the younger generations.  It is quite heartbreaking in places – no more so than in relation to Chief Inspector Stave’s son.

The war may be over but the repercussions are severe.  The world remains fractured, its logic twisted.  Why else could nothing and nobody function without the black market and what are the British occupation forces doing dismantling the remaining machinery at Hamburg docks?  This can hardly be called peace. Personal relationships are suffering also.  Like the temperatures of the summer of 1947, resentments are rising.  Where is this heading?  I can hardly wait for the third instalment!

If 1945 saw the invention of curried sausage in Hamburg, then 1946 saw the British occupation overseeing denazification and the establishment of post-war administration in its allocated area.  Not an easy task, for it is generally accepted that in the post-war carve up of German, France got the wine, America got the scenery, Russia got the lion’s share (and farmland), while Britain got the ruins.

Fair’s fair you might say as Britain was tasked to clean up the areas devastated by British bombs – no more so than in Hamburg. Let’s be more specific there – the working-class areas of Hamburg. A cynical, though perhaps valid, point is made – I forget whether it’s in Rhydian Brook’s novel or in Cay Rademacher’s The Murderer in Ruins (which I read straight afterwards) – that the British ensured that the beautiful villas on the Elbchausee remained untouched, so that they could requisition them for their officers once the war was won.

Villas on the Elbchaussee, seen from the Elbe

Jenisch Haus, Elbchaussee

This requisitioning of the villas on the Elbe is the foundation on which Brook builds his novel, though the British officer to which Stefan Lubert’s villa is allocated is no ordinary army officer.  Colonel Lewis Morgan is uncomfortable with the high-handedness of Army Command and makes an original proposition – that Lubert and his daughter stay in the villa in the rooms above the grand rooms that his own family will occupy.

He makes the decision unilaterally.  It’s a surprise for his wife when she arrives on German shores with their youngest son, Edmund.  Given that she is still mourning the death of their eldest, killed when their home in Milford Haven was bombed … you can imagine her reaction!

Emotions run high on the German side too, for Lubert lost his wife in the fire-bombing of Hamburg, and his teenage daughter, Freda, is going off the rails. While the adults attempt to deal rationally with the situation,  Freda remains hostile. She represents a severe threat to Morgan’s younger son, Edmund, naïve, trusting, inheritor of his father’s golden heart.

Both children become involved with the Trümmelkinder – orphans and displaced kids, living amongst the ruins, and requisitioning the odd empty villa themselves. Most seeking only to scavenge enough to keep themselves alive, though  older ones, wishing for vengeance, are plotting against the occupiers.  Enter Albert ….

Can there ever be a healing for these traumatised folk? A true rapprochement not only between former enemies, but also between husband and wife, now grown apart after an enforced separation of 4 years? Will Captain Morgan’s generosity be repaid in kind, or is betrayal in these circumstances the only expectation?

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I would say this novel is an absorbing personal drama rather than historical fiction. Sufficient background information is provided to provide context, texture and motivation, but it’s not the main focus and so the novel is never weighed down by it.  The consequences of Captain Morgan’s actions are what drive the novel forward; his generosity implausible you might think, but actually it is that of the author’s grandfather.  This was the starting point for the novel, and in the afterword Brook makes clear that the rest of the story, including the dirty linen, is his own invention. Just as well!

When travelling,  it is important to connect with local culture. And so, while in Hamburg, I went on a quest with Uwe Timm’s The Invention of Curried Sausage to discover the origins of that particular culinary delight.  OK, I confess I bought my first one ever for the photo opportunity. Then I ate it. It was fine, but I’m not likely to repeat the experience.  Thankfully the novel was more to my taste.

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Translated from German by Leila Vennewitz

The rumour is that the curried sausage was invented in Hamburg in the autumn of 1945 by fast food stall owner, Lena Brucker.  In 1989 Uwe Timm’s fictional self, who as a child indulged frequently in this fast food, tracks her down to her old people’s home, with the intention of finding out how she did it.  It takes more time that he allocated, for Lena, now a lonely old woman, knows how to string out her story – particularly, when she has a young man who keeps coming back, bringing delicious German cake to each meeting.

But Lena’s story is no ordinary one and worth the wait (and the calories!) It takes us back to the final days of the Second World War, when Lena (43) meets the young naval officier, Hermann Bremer (24), and, seemingly on a whim, colludes in his desertion.  She keeps him hidden in her flat, but although the war is almost over, this is still a dangerous action.  Neighbours still spy on each other and are quick to denounce traitors to the authorities.

Once the war is over though, Lena decides that she would like to keep Hermann to herself a little longer and so, using the same creativity she will employ in the creation of her culinary masterpiece, she invents a continuation of the war, complete with manoevres and strategies, to convince Hermann that he must stay put. Of course, this is a tactic doomed at some point to failure, but Lena enjoys herself (and Hermann) while it lasts.

The surprise return of her womanising, free-loading husband after six years forces Lena to recognise her desire for independence, and once he is out of the way, she embarks on the journey – via barter and the black market – that, step by step and by fortuitous accident,  leads to her famous invention.

I’m remembering this story as a light-hearted one, which is strange given the backdrop of war-torn Hamburg, the dangers of harbouring a deserter, and the anathema that Lena must face from her British army employer when the horrors of the concentration camps become clear.  I think that is primarily due to Lena’s resilience and indomitable spirit, refusing to let history weigh her down, continuing to achieve the seemingly impossible.  Because how else do you explain a blind old woman retaining the capacity to knit a multi-coloured intarsia from memory, weaving in the clouds and sunshine of her own life along the way?