Photo by Anke L used under a Creative Commons license.

Jenny Erpenbeck, Visitation (New Directions, 2010).
Using a lakeside house in Brandenburg, in eastern Germany near Berlin, Erpenbeck’s novel follows twentieth-century history from Weimar Germany through the rise of the Nazis, the Soviet occupation, the German Democratic Republic, and re-unification.  After a prologue, Erpenbeck weaves the stories of the house’s owners and inhabitants, all caught in the century’s brutal events.  Erpenbeck’s prose, as translated by Susan Bernofsky, is poetic and spare, and rewards attention.  The story is set by the Scharmützelsee (or Märkisches Meer – the “Brandenburg Sea”), a glacially-formed lake southeast of Berlin, once the country and now a suburb.  The US publisher says the house once belonged to Erpenbeck’s grandparents (something that was not obvious to this reader). After I put it down, this book continued to gnaw at me.

Here is Wikipedia’s page on Erpenbeck. M.A. Orthofer (The Complete Review) says the novel’s sense of place contrasts with the dispossession and flight experienced by many of its characters. Michel Faber (The Guardian) says it allows us to feel that we’ve known real individuals, experienced the slow unfolding of history, and bonded unconditionally with a place. Alfred Hickling (The Guardian) calls it ambitious, but says it rattles through human history with a confusing swiftness. Damian Van Denburgh (Critical Mob) says Erpenbeck repeats images and phrases to effect, illustrating the history of a place. Clare Colvin (Daily Mail) says it distils a century of German strife into one house in Brandenburg. CJ Schuler (Financial Times) compares its epic trajectory to Buddenbrooks, though it is only 150 pages long. Rebecca K Morrison (The Independent) appreciates a restrained, never indulgent, tapestry of individual stories laced with folklore. Christian House (The Independent) says that by focusing on a patch of land next to a Brandenburg lake, Erpenbeck layers story upon story to construct a haunting edifice. Jennifer Lipman (The Jewish Chronicle) says Erpenbeck muses on life and death and how the impact of experiences changes over time. Lizzy Siddal occasionally was left disoriented. Trevor calls it impressionistic but cohesive. Natasha Tripney (The Observer) says it encompasses both the domestic and the horrific. Ron Slate says Erpenbeck makes the reader care deeply about characters met in passing, in brief episodes. Christopher M. Ohge says much of what seems odd at first eventually becomes clear. Annie Janusch (The Quarterly Conversation) says the house become a vessel for the histories of its inhabitants. Phillip Witte (Three Percent) lauds shimmering prose full of radical juxtaposition. J.C. Gabel (Time Out Chicago) was lured into a terrifying world of love, loss and regret. Fran Bigman (Words Without Borders) calls Erpenbeck a master of concealment and delay. Kevin says it’s distinguished by the flat, almost hypnotic tone of the prose. Nancy O calls it challenging but rewarding. Chris Wolak was excited and exhausted. Richard Prouty says the stories are told in a mesmerizing style. Monica Carter calls it disjointed but impressive. Jefferson Chase read a collection of two-dimensional morality plays. Judith found it haunting and spell-binding. Graham calls it brief but powerful. Chazz W calls it inventive and compelling as literature, riveting as history. Richard Saturday says the hero is the house. William Rycroft said it felt like a longer book than it is. Emmett Stinson says it’s not quite a collection of short stories but not quite a novel. Jackie found no motivation to turn the pages. Caitlin Fehir says each word feels important. Jennifer Cameron-Smith found it profoundly moving. Megan O’Grady interviewed Erpenbeck for Vogue. kjd interviewed Susan Bernofsky, the translator. And Pietari Posti designed the US cover.

Buy it now at

Photo by Martin Biskoping used under a Creative Commons license.

Ian McEwan, The Innocent (Anchor, 1998).
A thriller set in the 1950s.  The protagonist, Leonard Marnham, is a young English technician detailed to assist with an American operation to tunnel under East Berlin to intercept Warsaw Pact communictions.  On his own time, he finds himself seeing a rather more experienced German divorcee. In time, these two parts of his life begin to interfere with each other, though it would be a shame to say much more about it.

Here are McEwan’s site and Wikipedia’s page on him. Bob Corbett recommends it as a quick and fairly interesting story, better than the run-of-the-mill popular novel. Orrin Judd calls it an adequate spy novel, with some interesting true background and some entertaining psychological twists and turns. Paul says that if you want an intelligent cold war thriller, and you want it about Berlin, then you could do much, much worse; he also recommends a Berlin bookstore. L.S. Kiepp (EW) calls it a haunting black comedy with a silver lining, charged with psychological complexity, sex, and suspense, full of narrative cunning and precise, darkly witty prose. Roger Boylan (Boston Review) says the novel’s Berlin is scented with the real thing, the diesel fumes and beery scents and the Wurstwagens and the bracing Berliner Luft, the air of Berlin. Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times) calls it a powerful and disturbing novel, a tour de force of horror and philosophical suspense. Shane describes it as a coming-of-age story wrapped up in an espionage novel. Madhvi Ramani calls a thrilling tale about lost innocence and loyalties that plays out in pre-wall Berlin, and says it’s one of her top 10 Berlin novels. Karen read it desperately to the end. Nathan Hobby (n.b. – spoilers) sees it as a precursor to later McEwan novels. Anne (spoilers) couldn’t suspend disbelief. Larry says beware: it’s not a Hollywood love story. Shuggie is becoming a McEwan fan. Devora calls it a bleak portrait of post-war and mid-Wall Berlin. P. says it captures the sense of the era. Don Swaim interviewed McEwan in 1990 about the book. Patrick McGrath interviewed him in for BOMB in 1990. Adam Begley interviewed him in 2002 for The Paris Review. Dan Zalewski profiled McEwan for The New Yorker in 2009. Caryn James (The New York Times) called the 1993 film a slowly satisfying thriller.

Buy it at

Image from sarahamina used under a Creative Commons license.

Siegfried Lenz, Stella (Other Press, 2009).
A simple and bittersweet novella, a coming-of-age story set on the coast of Germany in the 1960s.  Seventeen-year-old Christian falls in love with his young English teacher, Stella.   The story opens with Stella’s funeral, and yet its innocence is not lost and its tragedy does not seem ordained.  N.B. — While the publisher and many reviewers place the setting on the Baltic coast, an early reference to a North Frisian island prompts me to think that the setting is rather Germany’s North Sea coast, in the area known as Frisia or the Heligoland Bight.

Here is Wikipedia’s entry on Lenz. The Complete Review says it is well crafted, if too obviously so, but isn’t all that moving. David Vickrey says Lenz tells an old story with such grace and control that it seems new, just as the world seems made anew in the eyes of young lovers. Boyd Tonkin (The Independent) calls it a tenderly evocative sense of place, mood and era, and thanks Anthea Bell for “a flawless translation which captures a prose that shifts in nuance as often as the North Sea winds and currents that run through the story.” It didn’t rock Katy Derbyshire’s boat. According to beer good, it has a tone that reminds one of the Skagen painters; the wide open sky, the false nostalgia of easy life in a place where most people have to work hard for everything, the hazy North Sea light.

Buy it at

Walking under the lights Munich
Photo by moertl used under a Creative Commons license.

Philip Kerr, The One from the Other (Penguin, 2009).
Kerr’s hard-boiled detective, Bernie Gunther, known to readers of his Berlin Noir trilogy, is back again. It is 1949, and Gunther finds himself running an inn in Munich, but innkeeping is not really Gunther’s metier, particularly when the inn is across the street from the Dachau camp. He soon goes to work as a private investigator, looking for a missing husband. In post-war Munich, Americans are hard to miss and ex-Nazis are hard to avoid.

Wikipedia’s bio of Kerr is a little thin. Here is a brief Q&A with him. The Complete Review says it’s occasionally far-fetched, and trying too hard, but thoroughly entertaining. Ron Rosenbaum (The New York Observer) says Kerr is unique in that he bridges the private-eye and public-spy genres . Simon Clews (The Age) says Kerr’s almost gothic characters are drawn with a painterly eye . Patrick Anderson (The Washington Post) calls Kerr’s Germany a searing portrait of Hell on Earth. Peter Guttridge (The Guardian) calls it slow-moving but intelligent, if didactic. Marilyn Stasio (The New York Times Book Review) calls it a bleak tale of the dirty deals made by victors and vanquished alike. Tim Davis calls it tense, chilling and provocative. C. Michael Bailey (Blogcritics) thinks Kerr creates an intriguing picture of postwar-occupied German. Whisky Prajer says it doesn’t soar to the heights or plummet to the depths of Berlin Noir. Yvonne Klein sees a complex, tricky plot. Irma Heldman (Open Letters) says you can smell the depravity and feel the evil (n.b. – this review is long on plot). Chris Marshall thoroughly enjoyed it. Jedidiah Ayres says the research and period details are priceless. And if you speak Dutch, this Philip Kerr page is for you.

Buy it at

Greifswalder Strasse
Photo by Malkav used under a Creative Commons license.

Philip Kerr, Berlin Noir (Penguin, 1994).
Three separate novels published under one cover, all featuring Berlin private detective Bernie Gunther, a former policeman. March Violets, a term for late converts to the Nazi Party, is set in 1936 and finds Gunther investigating missing jewels and two murders that implicate senior Party members. In The Pale Criminal, set in 1938, Gunther runs afoul of Reinhard Heydrich. A German Requiem is set in 1947 Vienna, where Gunther must deal with the war’s aftermath. Kerr’s writing evokes Raymond Chandler, and the noir genre is apt enough for the corrupt, dark world of Nazi Germany. (I haven’t read it yet, but Kerr recently wrote a fourth noir featuring Gunther, The One from the Other.)

Here are reviews and posts from C. Michael Bailey (Blogcritics and also here), Orlando Zepeda (Boldtype), Fredric Smoler, De Scribe, Claire Helene, Ron Rosenbaum (The New York Observer), Rogue, wintermute2_0, Tim Welch and Matt. Nick Rennison recommends it as Berlin reading (scroll down).  See also James Fallows, Mort, and this list from National Geographic’s Traveler.

Buy it at

Shoe sculptures and Jewish memorial
Photo by davescunningplan used under a Creative Commons license.

Imre Kertész, Fatelessness (Vintage, 2004).
In 1944, György Köves is a 14-year-old Hungarian Jew in Budapest, with more privileges than many Jews because he has been enlisted to repair bomb damage. One day his bus is stopped and he and others are rounded up and transported to Auschwitz. Days later he is transferred to Buchenwald, and later to another camp, Zeitz. After a year, he is liberated. Kertész lived through this, and much of the novel seems autobiographical, though Kertész says otherwise. Kertész tells his story in stark and simple terms, all the more moving for Koves’ matter-of-fact outlook. Fatelessness was first published in Hungary in 1975. The book was first published in English in 1992 under the title, Fateless. Kertész won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, the first Hungarian to be so honored.

The Nobel Prize folks provide this biography of Kertész and other information, including his Nobel Lecture. Here is the Complete Review’s review, and here are its links to a copious assortment of other published reviews. György Spiró writes about Fatelessness and his relationship with Kertész in The Hungarian Quarterly. Via Chad W. Post, here is an article by Tim Wilkinson on other work by Kertész now in translation. Brain Drain points to this interview with Kertész . Judith Bolton-Fasman posts this essay about the book. Bloggers writing about the book include Henry Joy McCracken, waggish, Tchelyzt, nathan emmerich, Philip Spires, Pazdziernik. NPR aired this story about the movie’s fidelity to the novel.

Buy it at

Good bye Lenin!
Photo of the Berlin Wall by Gianni D. used under a Creative Commons license.

Timothy Garton Ash, The Magic Lantern (Vintage, 1999).
Accounts of the revolutionary events of 1989 from one who was there. Garton Ash, an English historian, lived and reported from Central Europe during the 1980s, and established relationships with activists in the nascent democracy movements behind the Iron Curtain. As events unfolded in 1989, he often was there. Written by neither a dispassionate witness nor a full participant, this is a collection of dispatches, not a comprehensive history. An afterword adds some hindsight.

Some excerpts are here, albeit in a .pdf file with some formatting issues. The author’s web site has this biography, among other things. Jan T. Gross reviewed it in The New York Times. Brian R. Hecht reviewed it in The Harvard Crimson. Lucy Despard wrote a brief review in Foreign Affairs. Here are posts from Misha Griffith and Meg. Here is a 1996 interview with Garton Ash. In this article, he revisited the revolutions of 1989 ten years later. And in this piece he looked back at his encounters with Vaclav Havel.

Buy it at

Next Page »