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Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Week Three #GermanLitMonth

Week three and the reading was easier, although I’m further behind in the German original than I am with the English translation. More of a time issue than anything else.

“Chapters” 6/7

  1. The German original calls the chapters “Books” not chapters. In my opinion this is a gross error and robs the English reader of seeing some intertextual links. How do you feel about this? It didn’t really bother me that there was this difference. I thought the use of Books in the original German made sense when you view Berlin Alexanderplatz as a collection of writing on this section of Berlin society, their customs and beliefs and practices. Something akin to a religious text, with the quotes from scripture, religious imagery and references to characters and stories in the Bible only serving to underline this.
  2. Were you surprised to find out what happened to Franz after Reinhold pushed him out of the car? Do you find that Döblin is unnecessarily cruel to his creation? Yes, I was surprised when Reinhold did what he did.. I think because things happened so rapidly once he was in Magdeburg. Almost as if his arm was whipped off.Well, Döblin did warn us that Franz would be put through the ringer! A slow recovery wouldn’t have been anywhere near as interesting as the shock of Franz suffering life-changing injuries. It’s what writers do to their characters – put obstacles in their way to see how they react. The more shocking and larger the obstacle, the more dramatic the resulting narrative.
  3. What does Berlin Alexanderplatz tell us about Döblin’s “Menschenbild” – his philosophical conception of human beings?I think he explores to what extent we can or do self-define ourselves and to what extent our choices and the environment we live in help or hinder that. Do we have free will or are we a product of our upbringing, life experiences and whatever fate brings our way?
  4. Do you have a favourite character so far?Not really. I’m quite enjoying the bar scenes and the rambunctious energy of those, but I’m having a hard time finding anyone I really like that much.
  5. In these chapters, we see Franz attending political meetings. What did you think about these sections and his friend’s reactions?I thought these were fascinating, not only to see how what was happening was discussed, but what ordinary people felt about it all.I know that Franz’s friends were concerned for his welfare and what he might be sucked into, but I did feel that they discouraged him too quickly from getting involved. He needed a new interest and needed to form new friendships, something to keep him occupied, so he didn’t fall back in with the Pums’ gang.
  6. Most novels can be read without the reader knowing anything about the author’s life. What about this case? Were you compelled to read up on the author?I wouldn’t say I felt compelled and I didn’t want to find out anything about him until after I’d finished it.Reading the book has made me curious about its author but I wanted to come to the readalong free of any notions as to what extent the author drew from his own life experiences and how much of the book was a product of his research and imagination.

One week left and I might actually manage to make it to the end. But I’ve been frustrated with how little time I’ve had to read what others taking part have to say about the book.

If I do another readalong, I need to start the book sooner, read it and draft the blog post earlier and take part on others’ posts. I didn’t plan well enough to fit in with this one.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Week Two #GermanLitMonth

I made it to the end of week two but this was not without its challenges, either. Read on to find out why.

Chapters 3 – 5

  1. What do you make of Döblin’s structuring of the novel?  The short summaries at the beginning of each chapter, each section? The montage technique? Initially, I wasn’t a fan of the short summaries at the beginning of each chapter. I’d much rather not know what’s coming when I’m reading than have an expectation and for it not to be delivered in the way I expect or for the surprise to be taken away from me.As I mentioned in my previous post on the first two chapters, I also struggled to understand what was happening with Döblin’s use of montages because there was no clear demarcation between these and the narrative. But by this point in my reading of the text, I was more used to them and found them as interesting in some cases as the story of Franz and his companions. They all go to give a better sense of the city which Franz moves around in and helped me to build up a better picture of Berlin at this time.
  2. Women and the treatment of women in Berlin Alexanderplatz …. Discuss. Ha! How long have you got?! I think this has to be an aspect of the novel which is particularly problematic for anyone reading it in 2019, especially if you’re a woman. But I did try my best to put aside my feminist outrage and read it as a novel of its time and about this section of society. That’s not to say that it didn’t colour my impression of the novel and I have to admit that I did consider abandoning the book at times.Even though we know why Franz was in prison, it still came as a shock to see that none of the women in this book are treated well. The men use the language of normal, loving relationships to describe the women but they’re acting as their pimps and living off the proceeds of the women’s relationships with other wealthier men, each side is aware of the other and seem okay with sharing their women, and the women appear to enjoy having the opportunity to be the providers for their men.

    The way that Reinhold and Franz agree that one passes off his cast-offs to the other when he becomes bored of them is digusting, and I disliked both men for entering into this arrangement with each other.

    They’re bizarre relationships to get my head around and I would have liked to have seen one good, more relatable relationship included which balanced this out a little.

  3. This section introduces Reinhold, who will prove to be Franz Biberkopf’s main antagonist.  What do you think of Biberkopf’s initial underestimation of Reinhold? I think because Biberkopf’s life is taking a turn for the better and he is more sorted than he ever thought he would be on release day, this makes him blind to Reinhold’s potential dangers or faults.He also believes himself to be smarter than Reinhold and is too cocky about this. He seems almost over-ebullient about doing him a favour and thinks it a great lark, a game. He lets his defences down and Reinhold manages to quickly gain Franz’s confidence, as a result.

    I worried that Franz was too open with him but I genuinely think that he felt so happy about the way things were going, he didn’t look for warning signs and only looked at the positives. And some people are very good at charming their way into our confidence and lives, as Reinhold does with Franz’s here.

  4. What was the highlight of this section for you?  What the lowlight? What I enjoyed most about this section was Franz’s wanders around the city and the time spent in bars, the conversations he overheard or took part in. I was getting into the writing style and not finding the montages so much of a surprise, and this all helped to give me a feel for life in Berlin, and build up a picture of the city at this time.There were two low points and I can’t decide between them because they both made for difficult reading.

    One was the treatment of women in this novel, as mentioned above in response to question two, and the protracted, excruciating description of the slaughterhouse. That was tortuous to get through and I still don’t understand why it was included, unless it’s a metaphor for how people come in from surrounding areas to the big city and have the life beaten out of them in the process. Either that, or it’s to foreshadow something that’s coming later in the book, possibly?

  5. Do you have any further observations or questions you’ll be looking to answer at a later stage? Well, as I said above, I want to see what purpose that lengthy description of the slaughterhouse serves, and whether it’s picked up and alluded to later in the novel.I can’t see that Franz taking on Reinhold’s cast-offs is going to end well, but I’m also interested to see what additional role Reinhold plays in Franz’s story.

    I’m not sure I like Franz any better at this stage but I am getting more of a feel for his character and am starting to enjoy the dialogue; it’s ranty, opinionated, belligerent, but it has a real energy about it which I’m especially enjoying.

I’m getting into the novel now and am not finding its idiosyncracies so off-putting, so I think I’m going to keep going and find out how things turn out for Herr Biberkopf.

Book Review: The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason

Daniel Mason’s The Winter Soldier takes a young medical student far from Vienna and into the makeshift world of being a wartime medic in the Galician mountains on the Poland-Ukraine border.

Vienna, 1914. Lucius is a twenty-two-year-old medical student when World War I explodes across Europe. Enraptured by romantic tales of battlefield surgery, he enlists, only to find himself posted to a remote field-hospital ravaged by typhus. Supplies have all but run out, the other doctors have fled, and only a single nurse remains, from whom he must learn a brutal, makeshift medicine.

Then one day, an unconscious soldier is brought in from the snow, his uniform stuffed with strange drawings. He seems beyond rescue, until Lucius makes a fateful decision that will change the course of his life.

The Winter Soldier almost feels like a coming-of-age tale in many ways, as we trace Lucius’ journey from a privileged Viennese home life and university education to a remote field-hospital.

Lucius is more interesting than his privileged background might at first suggest. He has “an unusual aptitude for the perception of things beneath the skin,” and is socially awkward, struggling to see beyond the symptoms and cases he handles to the human beings affected, namely his patients and their families. It takes him a long way into the novel to even begin to realise this, and crucially for him, it will help to shape his story.

I started to warm to Lucius after he followed Sister Margarete’s lead initially because the assured, if mysterious, sole nurse on site is far more practical than Lucius in almost every way imaginable. (This isn’t entirely his fault; by the time he enlists, the nature of his medical training means that he’s only ever handled four patients – and one of those was for earwax, so he’s sorely under-equipped for what’s ahead of him.)

I was as intrigued by Margarete as Lucius is and wanted to know what had brought her to this isolated spot to nurse soldiers in a conflict zone. I also admired her strength of character and her strategies for coping in such a male-dominated world. Read more

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Week One #GermanLitMonth

As part of #GermanLitMonth, I’m taking part in the Berlin Alexanderplatz readalong. Week One was not a happy one at the Nut Press, which is why I’m posting this so very late in the month. I’ll let my answers to the discussion questions Lizzy set tell you why that was.

Chapters 1-2.

  1. Welcome to the #germanlitmonth readalong of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.  What enticed you to readalong with us? It’s one of those books which comes up quite often in lists of German classics or novels you need to read, Berlin novels you need to read, etc, and I must have succumbed to one of those at some point because I bought it and it’s been sitting on my German bookshelf since last year for the German original, and earlier this year for the English translation.

    Now seemed as good a time as any to tackle it, what with the focus on Berlin for the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, and having this fantastic opportunity to read it together with others. I thought that I’d get more out of it by doing that, especially with the discussion points each week and seeing other reader responses to those.

  2. Summarise your initial expectations.  Are they being met? I was interested in seeing if it lived up to being one of the great city novels, and what it told me about Berlin at this time; also why it was considered a classic and a must read. Once I heard that it had been compared to Joyce’s Ulysses, which I’ve read, I didn’t expect to like or understand all of it, especially in the original German, but hoped there would be at least a few sections I enjoyed reading!At this point, I didn’t like the book very much, and couldn’t see why it was considered to be a classic.

    I found Chapter One a real struggle to read and it took a while to work out what Döblin was doing by including things such as prison regulations and advertisements in his text with no line breaks from the rest of the narrative. He kept going off at tangents for no good reason and it felt like ending up in a cul de sac and having to find my own way back to Alexanderplatz, without any directions to help.

    I had a really hard time getting into the story and working out what was going on, above and beyond the fact that Franz has just been released from prison and seems to be scared of being back in the outside world. It took me a while to work out that he was actually taken in by the Jews and it wasn’t a drink or drug-induced hallucination of Franz’s. It seemed so other-worldly at the time I read it.

    The Berlin dialect didn’t help me any, either and slowed me down. I didn’t finish reading the chapters in time to post this on the first Saturday. But I decided to give it another go, downloaded the German audiobook from Audible and listened to that, while reading the German text, which helped so much. And I was back up and running!

  3. Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading? If you’re reading the original German, is there anything noteworthy about Döblin’s language? I’m reading the Fischer Klassik edition (ISBN: 978-3-596-90458-7) for the German version and listening to the audiobook narrated by Hannes Messemer, downloaded from Audible UK. It’s supposed to be an unabridged version but it does skip some passages here and there. The English version I have is the the Penguin Modern Classics edition (ISBN: 978-0-141-19162-1. They’re both pictured above.

    I think Michael Hofman does a good job of translating the text while also giving you a feel here and there for the way the characters speak to each other, without using a corresponding English or American dialect. Not that I’m entirely sure what that would have been, or if it would have worked and captured the energy and rhythm of the Berlin dialect, had he done that. But it’s definitely something you miss out on, if you don’t read it in the original German or listen to the audiobook narration.

  4. What are your first impressions of Berlin and Franz Biberkopf? Berlin seems to be busy and chaotic, more of a building site than a city, but with all of this development work, it also seems to have an energy and dynamic that gives its people more opportunities to graft or hustle and scrape a living in all the turmoil. There’s a real buzz about it.

    Released from prison, Franz Biberkopf appears scared of being outside once more; he sees his release as more of a punishment than being in prison where he felt safe and more secure. He’s worried about straying too far from the red walls of Tegel which are all he’s known for the past four years as he ventures out into a world where he has to make his own way, instead of complying with prison regulations. He seems afraid of being out of control again and this is a city in flux, full of temptation, which could so easily lead him astray and feels more dangerous to him than being cooped up in a cell block with other criminals.

  5. Döblin’s original title was “Berlin Alexanderplatz” He added “The Story of Franz Biberkopf” at the publisher’s insistence.  Why do you think the publisher intervened in this way? How does this duality of focus manifest itself in the structure of chapter 2? I think because it’s easier for the reader to have an individual to focus on and whose story you follow over the course of the novel; it allows the reader to get to know that character, while seeing the impact which Berlin has on him and his life at this time, as well as those people he encounters along the way.It’s perhaps better than having a myriad of stories centred around a place, which might feel less like a novel and more as if it’s a collection of vignettes about people whose lives intersect with each other and the square. This approach of focusing on one character and the people he meets tells the story of the city in microcosm, and enables you to see the larger picture emerging of the city around him, while also being told this individual’s own experiences during this period.
  6. Do you any have any further observations or questions you’ll be looking to answer at a later stage? I’m hoping that I’ll feel more at home with the writing style and use of dialect, so that I can focus on the story more. And I’m interested in understanding why Döblin settled on Franz as his central character; perhaps it’s because Franz has been away for a while, and is having a hard time adjusting to being back in Berlin in the midst of so much disorienting change and upheaval. He’s landed in Berlin just as the reader is, and it takes us – and him – a while to find his feet and find our way into the story of this place.

Not a great start for week one. It took me longer to read the two chapters than I imagined it would, and I found it difficult to get into. I’m hoping that improves over the next week. Stay tuned to find out!

German Literature Month 2019

November is a busy month in the blogosphere with Novella Month, Non-Fiction November and German Literature Month all competing for the attention of bloggers who are up for a challenge. And while I’m tempted to do a couple of posts about the first two, it’s German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, that interested me the most.

I’ve never taken part before because I’m usually caught up in the madness that is NaNoWriMo but, as I’m not doing that this year, I’m free to take part in #GermanLitMonth for the first time. I’m hoping it’ll kick start a more regular German reading habit and help me salvage some of my dwindling language skills. I’ve a trip to Frankfurt coming up at the end of the month, which is just the incentive I need to give it a shot.

It’s already the middle of the month and I hadn’t posted about my book choices, so here they are in both English and German editions:

Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fischer / Penguin Modern Classics) – Alfred Döblin. This is Lizzy’s choice for the month-long group read-along. It’s been languishing unread on my bookshelf for far too long, so I’m excited to take part and finally tackle this beast. Read more

Book Review: The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis

Writing under the very Brontë-esque pen name of Bella Ellis, Rowan Coleman has come up with a delicious premise for a new series featuring the Brontë sisters before they became published authors. The Vanished Bride is their first outing as detectors.

Yorkshire, 1845. A young woman has gone missing from her home, Chester Grange, leaving no trace, save a large pool of blood in her bedroom and a slew of dark rumours about her marriage. A few miles away across the moors, the daughters of a humble parson, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë are horrified, yet intrigued.

The path to the truth is not an easy one, especially in a society which believes a woman’s place to be in the home, not wandering the countryside looking for clues. But nothing will stop the sisters from discovering what happened to the vanished bride, even as they find their own lives are in great peril…

I’m always a little wary when someone reimagines or writes a mashup of a classic novel but when they’re done well, as in the case of Jo Baker’s Longbourn or Alison Case’s Nelly Dean, they can add a new dimension to the world and characters of the original, as well as being enjoyable in their own right. Happily, given how deftly she achieves both these things in the first of her Brontë Mysteries series, I can now add Bella Ellis’s The Vanished Bride to this list.

Bella Ellis writes the landscape so well and breathes life into the parsonage at Haworth that I had little difficulty in accepting her version of the sisters at work and leisure, and from there, it wasn’t too much of a leap to follow them into these new roles as detectors. I had fun spotting landmarks from their real and imagined geography and personal items I either remember reading about or having seen at the museum in Haworth. I also liked how some scenes in The Vanished Bride suggest where the inspiration for key scenes in the sisters’ own books might have come from.

I think The Vanished Bride works so well because its author doesn’t skimp on any of the elements that go to make up the story, so one doesn’t suffer at the expense of another or ever feel flimsy. Both the central mystery and the depiction of the sisters and the world they inhabit are equally satisfying and strong strands that each hold their own throughout. Read more

Book Review: The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal by Horatio Clare

Horatio Clare writes with great candour and generosity in The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal, offering a fierce flicker of hope to others in this illuminating contemplation of his own depression.

As November stubs out the glow of autumn and the days tighten into shorter hours, winter’s occupation begins. Preparing for winter has its own rhythms, as old as our exchanges with the land. Of all the seasons, it draws us together. But winter can be tough. 

It is a time of introspection, of looking inwards. Seasonal sadness; winter blues; depression – such feelings are widespread in the darker months. But by looking outwards, by being in and observing nature, we can appreciate its rhythms. Mountains make sense in any weather. The voices of a wood always speak consolation. A brush of frost; subtle colours; days as bright as a magpie’s cackle. We can learn to see and celebrate winter in all its shadows and lights.

When Clare’s early September birthday prompts thoughts of winter, a season he’s struggled through in recent years, he recalls how: “Last winter I thought I would go mad with depression. I was mad, but aware-mad, at least.

Clare tries to find and harness winter’s beauty and light to help him function better and be more present for his family. His journal is an attempt to avoid being pulled under again, by bleak weather and drab washed-out colours; loss of daylight and warmth; layers that muffle sound and feeling and by the withdrawal or hibernation of living creatures.

He might not stave off his depression but where he was “aware-mad” last winter, I’d say he’s “aware-depressed” here. In noting down and describing what he sees, he conducts a remarkable reappraisal of what some consider to be a dead season, discovering the colour and beauty of winter, and finding life in muted, often lonely isolation.

Clare’s ferocious love for his family and the natural world comes through in this lyrical and moving record of his debilitating battle with depression. Its pages whisper hope and come with a promise that, no matter how weak or subdued, the light is still there in winter. Horatio Clare reveals the truth in this through being an admirably honest and tenacious torchbearer here, and by opening himself up to others, he encapsulates The Light in the Dark.

The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal by Horatio Clare is published by Elliot & Thompson. It is available as an ebook, in hardback and in paperback from 3 October. You can find it at Amazon UK or instead buy it from Hive where every purchase you make helps to support your local independent bookshop. For more on the author and his writing, check out his Author Website or find him on Twitter

My thanks to the publisher and LoveReading for providing me with a review copy. This review first appeared on LoveReading’s website here.

Book Review: Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke

Heaven, My Home, the second book in Attica Locke’s Highway 59 series, uses a child’s disappearance to devastating effect in order to explore displacement, reconciliation and just what home means to people.

Nine-year-old Levi King knew he should have left for home sooner; instead he found himself all alone, adrift on the vastness of Caddo Lake. A sudden noise – and all goes dark.

Ranger Darren Matthews’ career and reputation lie in the hands of his mother, who’s never exactly had his best interests at heart, and she’s not above a little blackmail to press her advantage.

An unlikely possibility of rescue arrives in the form of a case down Highway 59, in a small lakeside town. In deep country where the rule of law only goes so far, Darren has to battle centuries-old prejudices as he races to save not only Levi King, but himself.

There’s a real sense of urgency to Heaven, My Home which doesn’t only stem from the length of time that a young boy’s been missing from his home. The countdown to Trump’s inauguration is running, bringing with it the potential for new priorities being set for Texas Ranger Darren Matthews’ department. Darren and his Ranger friends have registered this shift and already seen an upsurge in a more blatant form of racially-motivated crimes. They also sense that they might be running out of time to pursue certain lines of inquiry, particularly those involving the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas (ABT).

Darren’s lieutenant sees an opportunity to do something about that in this sequel to Bluebird, Bluebird, which I reviewed here. When the feds want a Ranger from the ABT task force involved, he volunteers Darren, sending him into a racially-charged war of attrition between an established and lawful black community living alongside Native Texan Indians on the shores of Caddo Lake and the more recent, and predominantly white, trailer park encroaching upon it.

Upon his arrival on the scene, Locke’s Texas Ranger is exposed to animosity from people who show scant regard for his badge in their dealings with him. I couldn’t help but feel that in trying to escape his mother’s blackmail and the pressure from not yet having been cleared of his involvement in a case back home, he’d jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. Read more

Book Review: The Mermaid’s Call by Katherine Stansfield

Katherine Stansfield’s Cornish Mysteries series moves to the unforgiving North Cornwall coast where Shilly and Anna are to investigate whether The Mermaid’s Call lured a man to his death.

Cornwall, 1845. Shilly has always felt a connection to happenings that are not of this world, a talent that has proved invaluable when investigating dark deeds with master of disguise, Anna Drake. The women opened a detective agency with help from their newest member and investor, Mathilda, but six long months have passed without a single case to solve and tensions are growing.  

It is almost a relief when a man is found dead along the Morwenstow coast and the agency is sought out to investigate. There are suspicions that wreckers plague the coast, luring ships to their ruin with false lights – though nothing has ever been proved. Yet with the local talk of sirens calling victims to the sea to meet their end, could something other-worldly be responsible for the man’s death?

A slightly more compact hardback for this third book in the Cornish Mysteries series but the cover is every bit as eye-catching and beautiful as those of its predecessors: Falling Creatures and The Magpie Tree.

When the book opens, we find Shilly and Anna on the coast in Boscastle, renting rooms above a butcher’s shop. They’re joined by Mathilda, who also appeared in The Magpie Tree, as they wait for a new case. It comes to their rooms in the shape of a drowned man:

He was soaked. Not just his clothes but his skin, too… the water seemed to pour from him… His broad face was coarse with stubble. This made him seem grey… He surely had come to us from the bottom of the sea.

Reading this whole scene where the captain describes the dream that brought him so abruptly home from sea, and which ends with Shilly describing someone: “As if she was the sea herself” was so powerful that I became fully immersed in the story and barely surfaced again until I’d finished The Mermaid’s Call.

Shilly and Anna’s investigations take them further up the coast from Boscastle to Bude and Morwenstow and Katherine Stansfield uses her poetic powers to fully realise this part of Cornwall within the pages of The Mermaid’s Call. I was dragged through the cloying mud in the lanes and fields, overwhelmed by the creeping stench in the churchyard, felt the pull of the clamouring sea beyond the cliffs and sensed myself being buffeted across the windswept fields towards them. Read more

Let’s play Spot the Difference with my 2019 #20BooksOfSummer Challenge

This was my first year taking part in the #20BooksOfSummer challenge run by Cathy over at 746 Books and it proved to be an interesting exercise for me. Not least because while I succeeded in reading more than 20 books (managing 29 in total over the 3-month period), I only stuck to half of my original selection which you can find here. The books I actually read are in the photo above (minus ebooks and a library book), with the ten books in the column on the left those initially chosen for the Challenge.

How did the books on the right replace the originals on my list and become part of my revised #20BooksOfSummer? Easy. They probably should have been there all along. I’d wanted to read and had agreed to review some, such as Something to Live For, Inland, The Light in the Dark & The Day We Meet Again; I was interviewing Laura Kemp at the Penarth Literary Festival in June, and prepped by reading The Year of Surprising Acts of Kindness & Bring Me Sunshine; I hadn’t included all the book group choices for the summer, which added The Doll Factory, The Immortalists & The Lost Letters of William Woolf to the list; and I also wanted to read a friend’s book, Widow’s Welcome, before its launch in August.

The additional books read were 7 ebooks, one proof copy and a library book: The Winker by Andrew Martin; The Most Difficult Thing by Charlotte Philby; Beneath the Surface by Fiona Neill; Then She Vanishes by Claire Douglas; The Perfect Wife by JP Delaney; Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane; The Daughter of Hardie by Anne Melville. The proof I read was Looker by Laura Sims and the sole library book was My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Thanks, I think in part, because I was on the road for 3 weeks over the summer, which made returns tricky.

I wasn’t very good at posting reviews as I read and instead concentrated on posting those I’d agreed to do to tie in with release dates or for blog tours. If I do this challenge again next year, that’s an area I could improve upon. As is reading posts by others taking part in the challenge. Read more

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