Review of The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch, translated by Jamie Bulloch
This novel written in the style of letters from various characters, both of the family and the person hired to protect them is set in Tsarist Russia. The father Yegor is the Governor of a University that due to student unrest, he has closed. Yegor and his family retreat to their summer home to get away from the trouble but the trouble finds them in the way of the hired bodyguard, Lyu, who we find out is part of the group causing unrest.
Through the letters, we see the private thoughts of the characters. As well as highlighting the unrest, you also find covered in them, matters of family life, disagreements and things like the family's first car (it was written in 1910 as well as Lyu's plotting.
I thought this was a very good novel, really well written and worked very good.
* * * * 1/2
Review of Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky
The novel starts with Richard retiring from the university where he has worked as a professor for many years (well his new title is Professor Emeritus). His wife died a couple of years ago and his recent partner left him after having an affair. He can't go in his boat as a swimmer died in the lake it is tied to and the swimmer is still there. Essentially into enterring retirement, Richard is feeling at a loose end, missing many important things to occupy his mind.
He hears on the news about protests at oranienplatz where a number of refugees from African countries are protesting about their treatment by going on hunger strike. Richard himself had experience of being a refugee, he was born in Silesia, Germany in the early 1940's and was part of the mass evacuations of the area with the approaching Russian soldiers, neary getting parted at the age of 3 from his mother as Germans crowded on to trains to get out (an issue covered in Walter Kempowski's All for Nothing)
Out of having nothing to occupy his mind more than anything, Richard composes some questions he wants to ask the refugees about their situation but the Berlin senate comes to compromise with the protesters, moving them to an old retirement home to await decisions before Richard can talk to any of these. Richard does go to the retirement home and arranges with the staff there, to talk to the refugee and gets to know them personally.
This is interwoven with interactions Richard has with existing friends and acquaintances. Jenny Erpenbeck makes splendid use of history to draw parralels between international borders, national identity and references through out the novel to the old East Germany, a country to which Richard had lived most of his adult live but no longer exists. National identity and borders are an interest of mine so these parts particularly resonated to me.
I thought the writer made a great job in both telling the story of the refugees and making an excellent novel through it. Richard is well formed character and it was an interesting read
* * * * *
Review of The Undertaking by Audrey Magee
The book starts with a soldier on the eastern front getting married to a picture of a woman he doesn't know, for honeymoon leave and the same ceremony takes place in Germany
When on honeymoon leave, meeting his wife for the first time and her family and then his father in law introducing him to the well connected Doctor that the father-in-law does work for and in turn during his honeymoon leave, he works for (early scene is breaking into a house of Jewish people). The soldier wants to return to his teaching job after Germany triumphs over Russia easily while the father-in-law has other plans, namely planting to the farm land that they need to feeds the expanding German family.
There is the opulence of the doctors surrounding, the relative comforts of the new house (even getting a Russian maid as doing housework is below a German family now) of the wife's family (in confiscated property) and then the dire circumstance
A novel of hope and loss there thereof, the bleakness and suffering brought on my overconfidence and the notion of invincibility
There is alot to be said about the novel, i think it is reflective of the times it is set. Audrey Magee I believe has done a good job in the Berlin she created and the Eastern front she created but for me, I just found a little bit lacking to move it from 3 1/2 to 4 stars. It has its merits and is a good novel.
This novel blew me away. It is a story, narrated in first person, by Cal and Manny, two young squaddies in Germany in the early 1990s. Cal is a Glaswegian; Manny is from Essex. They are in the Catering Corps, have no great military ambitions, and live for the dirty rugs (drugs) they score in Hamburg’s seamy nightclubs. Cal and Manny are best buddies.
As one of the characters explains, 4am is a transitional time. It is no longer still night, but not quite day. It is a time when things change; it is a time when many people who die in their sleep pass away. In the nightclubs, it is the time to decide whether to return home to bed or to stay and party into the new day. In this novel, we meet Cal and Manny at their own, personal 4am – as they transition from boys to men. They discover relationships; make significant life choices; choose sides.
Cal and Manny have very distinctive voices, and address the reader directly. Cal speaks in a Glasgow dialect; Manny is pure Estuary English. They are an odd pair, but are united in their love of the rave culture. The communal living arrangements in the army barracks allow friendships to be formed quickly and with intensity; they also let small matters of resentment build quickly into deeply held enmity.
Cal and Manny both make choices that most readers would not make. They have brash exteriors and seem superficially worthless. But underneath, both are complex characters with deeply held insecurities. Neither has a happy family background and the army represented an escape – the escape now sought in the drugs and clubs. It is interesting to see the fierce loyalty and love that Cal and Manny have for each other and for their closer comrades; loyalty and love that seems to out-muscle their love for their girlfriends. Both form a close bond with the reader.
Nina de la Mer gives a wonderful, compelling portrayal of the army’s need to break young soldiers and rebuild them in the desired form. This comes at a human cost, and the reader sees it and feels it. In a sense, the army here represents a metaphor for life as a whole; even on civvy street, young people are shaped and formed into acceptable members of society. Rebellion can only be tolerated up to a certain point.
The contrasts between the regimented life in barracks and the freedom of Hamburg is done especially well. The swagger of the squaddies in the town, living it large, blowing their paycheques, riding the trains and driving off to Amsterdam all comes crashing down each night in barracks, and the next morning’s diet of inspections, parade ground drill, and boiling potatoes in the kitchen. It’s not Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman: it’s a fraction of the glamour but so much more meaningful.
This is a novel that, at first, is warm and humorous. But with time and growing realisation, it becomes pretty bleak. The ending (I won’t spoil it) is deeply moving and handled with great sensitivity.
Right now, it is January. Have I already read my book of the year? *****
This isn't really a history book but all the categories mean Ihave to pigeon-hole the book to write about it (I won't rant, don't worry ). Stasiland is more of an investigation into life for "ordinary" people in GDR under communism and particularly focuses on the part played by the Stasi (secret police) both from the perpetrators' and victims' points of view.
Funder writes very well and tries to balance her investigation by covering both sides of the story and by her own commentary (which can be a bit much sometimes). She also draws parrallels with the explicit restrictions of communism and identical implicit restrictions of capitalism; such as freedom to travel, but not if you have no money. I really enjoyed the book and am fascinated by the subject matter.
However, there is a problem in that Funder gives the impression that every life was irrevocably tainted by the Stasi. There is no place in this book for the everyday life of millions of East Germans who lived under communism and who presumably have emerged unscathed. I just don't buy that everything about communism was bad and evil and that it brought absolutely no benefits or even humdrum-ness to its subjects.