Not excactly the New York Times Review


“Dreams From My Father. A Story of Race and Inheritance”  by Barack Obama.
Published in 2007 by Canongate Books, 442 pages

This year can be labeled as the year that I read the least since being able to read (I do not count literature about babies and supplementary food).

I finally finally finished Obama’s biography – I had started it in February and it was in my purse the day I suddenly was told to go to the hospital immediately to have The New Cohabitant. When I picked it up again it felt so foreign to me, like a keepsake from the past – and coincidentally I had stopped  around chapter 19 – where Granny starts telling Barack the life story of is father.

It is an interesting read indeed, and I enjoyed the book.

Not from the preface and not from the introduction but chapter one, the first three sentences:

“A few months after my twenty-first birthday, a stranger called to give me the news. I was living in New York at the time, on Ninety-fourth between Second and First, part of that unnamed, shifting border between East Harlem and the rest of Manhattan. It was an uninviting block, treeless and barren, lined with soot-colored walk-ups that cast heavy shadows for most of the day.”

“Tödliche Bescherung. Die spannendsten Weihnachtskrimis aus Skandinavien” by Henning Mankell, Ake Edwardson, Leena Lehtolainen u.v.a., edited by Anne Bubenzer
Published in 2007 by Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 271 pages
Translated by Angela Plöger, Angelika Kutsch, Gabriele Haefs, Christel Hildebrandt, Wolfgang Butt, Dirk Gerdes, Dagmar Lendt, Dagmar Mißfeldt, Anne Bubenzer, Gabriele Schrey-Vasara, Hermann Kiy, J. Sandmeiner

I received this book for Christmas and spent the first days of January reading story by story. First I thought I should wait until next Christmas, as the book promises me the most thrilling Christmas crime stories from Scandinavia. But Our City was beautifully covered in snow and thus I decided to read it anyway.

After the first story I was really disappointed. Just because it takes place at Christmas Eve and police officers show up, it does not automatically turn into a “thrilling Christmas crime story”. I am not sure how to summarize the book, now that I am done. I know it is difficult to write a thrilling short story, and I should not expect a new Millennium trilogy.  Maybe a different subtitle would have been a better fit? Anyway: I really enjoyed some stories, and therefore I quote the first three sentences of one of them:

“Frauensieg by Knut Hamsun

Ich war Straßenbahnschaffner in Chicago.
Zuerst war ich noch auf der Halsted-Linie angestellt, einer Pferdebahn noch, zwischen Stadtzentrum und Viehmarkt. Wir vom Nachtdienst waren alles andere eher als geschützt auf dieser Linie wegen aller der fragwürdigen Leute, die den Weg zur Nachtzeit passierten.”

P.S. I just realized that this story does not take place in Scandinavia. Funny that my subconsciousness picked that one.

“Meines Vaters Land. Geschichte einer deutschen Familie” by Wibke Bruhns
6th edition published in 2006 by Ullstein, 412 pages

The last book for this year.

Wibke Bruhns, a journalist (and the first female anchorwoman of the ZDF), watches a report on TV about the July 20th plot of 1944 and the trials before the People’s Court where she suddenly faces her father, Hans Georg Klamroth. He was sentenced to death and executed in 1944 when she was about six years old.

Seeing him on TV she realizes how little she knows about him which motivates her to  get to know him. She starts a travel into the family’s past during which she introduces her paternal family to us, a wealthy mercantile family in Halberstadt which she compares to the Buddenbrocks. They wrote a lot – letters, diaries – which built the main source for her search.

Bruhns focuses mainly on her paternal grandparents and her parents, and tells us about their lives and point of views.

It is indeed a fascinating book, especially as she can cite from so many written material on which basis she draws a portrait of three generations, including her older siblings. It is a very personal book as well: her attempt to get to know her father, questioning and dealing with his actions, especially his militarism and enthusiasm during WWI.

And these passages became tiresome for me after a while: she interprets and comments his behavior and thus leaves not really space and need for the  reader to build an own interpretation or opinion. Luckily this changes through the book.

The first three sentences:

“ICH HABE EIN FOTO VON MEINEM VATER GEFUNDEN. Es gibt Hunderte – in Alben, in Umschlägen, verstreut zwischen Tagebüchern, Zeugnissen, Briefen. Hans Georg als Kind, als ernster Halbwüchsiger, in Uniform im Ersten und im Zweiten Weltkrieg, als Ehemann, als Kaufmann, als Vater mit uns Kindern.”

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” by Mark Haddon
Published in 2004 by Vintage, 272 pages

Christopher is a 15 year old boy who has Asperger’s Syndrome. His teacher Siobhan tells him to write something that we would enjoy reading himself, and as he likes mystery novels – besides books about math and sciences – he writes about the murder of Wellington, the dog of a woman in his neighborhood.

He found the dog and wrongly got accused of having killed him. Thus he decides to bring the perpetrator to light. In his narration about his investigation he tells us a lot about himself: he loves lists and patterns, does not like to be touched nor the colors brown and yellow.
During his investigation, however, Christopher makes  an unexpected discovery which changes the plot’s development.

It is a charming book, a wonderful book – and that was what I was afraid about at some point. Haddon draws the picture of a cute and smart boy who sounds just so adorable that I thought it might belittle autism. But I am wrong: he succeeds in the balancing act and gives us a glimpse of the exertion raising Christopher means to his parents: their helplessness and fear and love for him.

The first three sentences:

2

It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears’ house. Its eyes were closed.”

“102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers. With a new afterword” by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn
First paperback edition published in 2005 by Times Books, 340 pages

I honestly have no idea why I bought that book – I only know that it was during one of my book shopping sprees at Barnes&Noble. During the last years I had started reading it several times, but always put it aside again. Some weeks ago I started again and finally finished it.

Dwyer and Flynn present us an extract insight into the scene of the Twin Towers, and among the police and the fire workers during the 102 minutes from the first plane hitting the North tower until both towers collapsed (and what happened afterwards as well). The accounts are based on eyewitness testimonies, phone tapes transcripts etc.

We get introduced to a lot of people, read a glimpse about their lives, and where they are when the planes hit. Some will make it, and a lot will not.
It is sometimes heartbreaking to read that someone decided to stay with his friend until help might show up.

Nonetheless, the authors do not simply present a tragedy but weave a lot of astonishing background facts into the storyline. Two things stuck out to me: the first was about the building codes.

  • In 1968 a code reduced the required number of stairways as well as the minimum fire resistance for shaft walls.
  • The number of exit stairways does not vary regarding the number of stories.
  • Whereas in schools for example exits have to be on opposite sides of the floors this was not required for office buildings, and thus the shafts were bunched tightly together as more space = more rent.

The second thing that surprised me is the ongoing rivalry between the fire workers and the police to the extend that they did not have a communication system installed serving both. (With the result that whereas the police outside was aware that one tower had collapsed, they could not deliver the information to all the fire workers inside the North Tower.)
We outside watching TV had more knowledge of what happened than the people inside the towers.

And reading about the structural and technical difficulties and problems makes the book indeed a tough read, because it leaves you just shacking your head uncomprehendingly.

The first three sentences, skipping the author’s note:

“Prologue

8:30 A.M.
North Tower

First into the office on the 89th floor of 1 World Trade Center, as always, Dianne DeFontes shut the door behind her, then locked it with a bolt that slid up and down, into floor and ceiling. The lawyers were unlikely to arrive at the office of Drinker Biddle & Reath for another thirty minutes. Until then, DeFontes, the fifty-one-year-old receptionist, would serve as the early voice of a humming, busy law firm engaged in global-trade litigation.”

“Wie es leuchtet” by Thomas Brussig
Published by Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag in 2006, 608 pages

More than a decade ago I attended a public reading by Brussig but was not really mesmerized by him at that time. Especially during dinner I sensed him as kind of aloof. For years, however, I think it was more due to most of the attendees being – hm – sort of elitist?

Anyway. I read” Helden wie wir” some years ago but it did not really catch me – and of course I saw “Sonnenallee” (which I enjoyed very much) in the movie theater in East Berlin. The variations of laughter were quite interesting – some jokes were funny to my East Berlin friends, and some to my West German friends.

Last year The Husband bought “Wie es leuchtet” for our vacation and read it with great pleasure. This fall I took it with me when we went abroad – and am totally smitten.

“Wie es leuchtet” covers the time from August 1989 until the reunification in 1990, and most of its storyline takes place in Berlin and Karl-Marx-Stadt.
The book starts with a kind of prologue by a first-person narrator who turns into one of the main characters in the novel. We get introduced to a group of individuals and their perception of the tide of events: e.g. Lena, a physiotherapist, her “brother”, a photographer, Waldemar, a hotel porter, the Wilde Willy, an ambulance driver, a lawyer, a prosecutor, a police man, an artist, a journalist from West Germany etc. etc. etc.

Their plot lines are developed separately; some of them are connected with each other, while others meet coincidentally or just pass by each other on a street.

Brussig weaves a net of different live experiences, different perspectives, and while doing so makes this time period tangible and understandable.

The first three sentences:

“Verschwommene Bilder

Alles, was ich über diese Zeit weiß, weiß ich von deinen Bildern, sagte Lena. Ja, es ist meine Bestimmung, dem Leben die Bilder zu entreißen. Das Leben zu knipsen bedeutet, Menschen zu knipsen.”

And on a side note: while the book is fiction there are some parallels to real persons. The journalist, for example, is based on Matussek who works for DER SPIEGEL – and kudos to him for his great review which is published on Thomas Brussigs website.

“Erinnerungen eines Davongekommenen. Die Autobiographie” by Ralph Giordano
Published in 2007 by Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 554 pages

A while back I bought this book for my commute – it was on sale at the book shop in the train station, and his book “Die zweite Schuld” is in our shelf and on my to-read-list for a very long time. It took me a while to finish it – reading it during the commute just did not work out, and so I started it again during our vacation where I finished it within a few days. It is a beautifully written book, and sometimes I would read passages aloud due to his wonderful writing style.

Giordano writes about his life, separating it into seven chapters and labeling them numerically. In “Das Vorleben” we learn about his family history, his grandparents, his Sicilian father and his mother. In “Das erste Leben” he writes about his childhood in Hamburg during 1923-1934. Due to their Jewish heritage, his family is persecuted by the Nazis but able to survive by hiding (“Das zweite Leben (1934-1945)”). In the following chapters he writes about him being a communist but growing estranged from the communist party (“Das dritte Leben (1945-1961)”), his work as a journalist (“Das vierte Leben (1961-1982)”) both for the WDR and as a freelancer (“Das fünfte Leben (1982-2007)”). He concludes his autobiography with “Ein Epigramm”.

The first three sentences:

“Bezeichnenderweise begann mein Leben mit einem Malheur, von dem es schon am Tag meiner Geburt fast beendet worden wäre – ich drohte zu ersticken.
Es war der späte Nachmittag des 20. März 1923, in der Heitmannstraße des Hamburger Stadtteils Barmbek.
Retterin wurde die Großmutter mütterlicherseits, Selma Lehmkuhl, geborene Seligmann.”

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