the year before the storm.

1913 by Florian Illies (2012)
the Year Before the Storm
 
1913; The year before the Great War. Hitler, Stalin and Tito are once at the same time in Austria. Franz Kafka is hopelessly in love and writes countless letters to his object of desire. Freud and Jung argue about psychology while the stunning Alma runs from artist to artist. Do they have any idea of what is coming? Written in monthly instalments, we follow a bunch of famous people through 1913.

The notes are interesting, funny and thought-provoking.  Especially those which involve things that are to come, like a Leonardo DiCaprio reference when talking about Titanic. The book is also interesting because we know what will happen. But I didn’t really get to truly enjoy it as I had no idea who most of the characters are. Although I understand the point of just following the characters through the year, I wish there would be some sort of summary or conclusion. Read it if you’re interested in cultural history, drop it if you’re not.

Germany between the wars.

the Blindness of the Heart by Julia Franck (2007)
The Würsich sisters, Helene and Martha, have a Jewish mother and a father who is fatally wounded in World War I. While their father is away, their mother becomes the mad woman in the attic. The girls have to take care of themselves, and both of them become nurses. When Martha’s lover, Leontine, goes to study medicine in Berlin and also ends up marrying a man, Martha is heartbroken and starts doing drugs. The economy is bad after WWI, and the girls are struggling to find work that pay well. They end up going to Berlin to live with their aunt.

Their aunt, Fanny, is rich, has a string of lovers and throws many parties. Helene is too young for the parties, but Martha fits right in and Helene must often help her sister to bed. And once in Berlin, Martha and Leontine revived their relationship. Years pass, and then Helene meets the love in her life, Carl. But danger and tragedy loom in the horizon.

A book that starts with a woman being raped by Soviet soldiers and then goes back in time and continues with incest, is a heavy read. And especially when you know because of the setting and characters that something is bound to go wrong. But thankfully, this book has its cheerful sides as well. I especially enjoyed the part  from where the sisters lived with their aunt in Berlin and until the epilogue.

It is one of those books which are entwined with history, and I learnt a lot about Germany between the wars. And especially how they executed the race laws. The only thing that really irked me with the book, was the epilogue. I get the main idea behind it and the symbolism, but it just left too many questions unanswered. And the biggest question of all, was the simple why.  But the book is really well-written, sad, beautiful and dark. I have already put the rest of Franck’s books on my wish list.

the German Enlightenment

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann (2005)
“That was the moment when he grasped that nobody wanted to use their minds. People wanted peace. They wanted to eat and sleep and have other people be nice to them. What they didn’t want to do was think.”
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a German scientist and adventurer who mapped Latin-America. He also collaborated and corresponded with another great German scientist, Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855). Gauss was nicknamed the Prince of Mathematics and he also did great things for physics. 
Kehlmann has written an exciting and accessible account of their friendship and Humboldt’s travels. Yet I felt that it should be something more to this book, because it felt too light and easy. I think it is because I never got mesmerised and involved with the story as I usually do, but this time I never really connected with the story. And three days later I don’t remember much of the book. Which is weird, because it should be right up my alley.

And now it sounds like the book is awful, but it’s definitely not! I enjoyed it there and then and I definitely learnt a lot about Germany at that time in history. I just wish it was more to it.

I picked this up after reading Rose-Marie‘s glowing review, and I read it for Ingalill’s biography reading circle where this round’s theme was crossovers.

“What use is it to him now that he was such a good mathematician at school?

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1928)
 “I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.” 
Paul Bäumer is a young German soldier on the Western Front. He conscripted with many of his fellow class mates and some of them are in the same troop. As the years go by, he watches them die one by one, and ponders about the meaning of it all.

We follow Paul in the trenches, in the hospital and home on leave. And what do we learn? That war is awful and meaningless. The intensity in the book mixed with sudden prose hit me straight in the face and it was impossible to lay down.

While reading, I kept wondering if this book would have been so powerful if it had been written from the perspective of the winning side. Because once we know that Paul is German, we know he is doomed to lose. It is definitely a really important book, and as it is a century since the Great War began, you should read it.

This was May’s read in Line’s 1001 books reading circle. I probably wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise (at this time in life anyway), so I’m grateful.

seventeen.

Buddenbrooks: the Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann (1901)


Consul Buddenbrooks and his family of five, plus various servants live the good life in a great house. The book follows the children from early age to death.

I started this book about two months ago, and then with 200 pages to go, I accidentally left it on a plane. I found a cheap copy and started reading it again a week ago.

It took me a long time to get into the story, and I usually could only read a couple of pages before my mind started to wander. Too many petty details. And too many names. It got a lot harder when I picked it up again, I had lost all interest in the family and the only thing that kept me going was the thought that when I finished it, I could cross it off a couple of my lists. It is bad when you are in need of some external motivation to finish a book.

So what is wrong with Buddenbrooks? There is not enough drama. My favourite part of the novel was the failing marriages of Tony, but they never got anywhere. And the other family members never got my full attention. A lot of the events explained in great detail would make great short-stories, like Hanno’s school day at the age of 15. Why put something so irrelevant so close to the end?

And now I dread picking up the other classics and discover that they are the same.

(I have read many great reviews of this book, so I guess it’s just me.)

ps. This is also one of the ugliest book covers I have seen.